Year of Publication

2010

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Fine Arts

Department

Musicology

First Advisor

Dr. Ronald Pen

Abstract

Albert E. Brumley (1905-1977) was the most influential American gospel song composer of the twentieth century, penning such “classics” within the genre as “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” “If We Never Meet Again,” “Turn Your Radio On,” and “Rank Strangers to Me.” His “I’ll Fly Away” has become the most recorded gospel song in American history with over one thousand recordings to date, and several of his works transcend cultural boundaries of style, genre, race, denomination, and doctrine. However, the racialized historiography of American gospel music has left Brumley—from America’s lesser-known white gospel traditions of convention singing and southern gospel music—largely untouched by scholarly scrutiny.

Comprising nearly four hundred works, most of which appeared in annual shapenote gospel songbooks published during the 1930s and 1940s, Brumley’s music is central to many Americans’ religious identity. This thesis represents the first thorough, academic assessment of his music, career, and his work’s cultural impact. Deeper examinations of the composer’s personal life and his work as a songwriter, as well as a fresh look at his publishing business’s growth and development, contribute a more complete biography. A broad analysis of his output—including a complete thematic catalogue of his published works—provides a framework for interpreting Brumley’s general compositional style and offers a context for understanding his music’s enduring legacy within popular music history, especially southern gospel, black gospel, and country music. Research into the cultural history of one particular Brumley work—“I’ll Fly Away”—and its various incarnations in music, television, film, and other outlets acts as a lens through which to view his impact on American music and society. This thesis ultimately argues that Brumley’s compositions have influenced the development of religious and popular music in America much more significantly than indicated by current scholarship, and that his music has become an important medium for American cultural expression that stretches well beyond the confines of the convention-singing and southern gospel traditions. As a result, it recognizes him as an emblematic figure of American music deserving inclusion within the ranks of its greatest contributors.

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