Betsy Brumley will never forget the first songwriting program. It was for the McDonald County school system in Missouri. Focused on third grade classes with students representing 13 different languages, as the children began to write songs together, they started to connect, to communicate, despite any language barriers—some even keeping this bond well beyond third grade.
“As we were writing the songs, it really broke down those barriers, and the walls came down,” says Brumley of the program with her foundation I’ll Fly Away. “All of a sudden, these kids were communicating in the same language: song. They were writing songs and practicing them together on the playground. Teachers were telling us that these kids never played together and now they were, through this understanding of songs.”
Founded in 2011, along with her husband Kevin Bernier, the I’ll Fly Away Foundation uses songwriting to engage and connect children, interpersonally and through education. Eventually, the the couple moved the songwriting programs into more rural and inner city schools, and to date have worked with more than 6,500 children and written 300 songs, across the United States.
I’ll Fly Away was inspired by the name itself, a song penned by her grandfather Albert E. Brumley and released in 1932. What started as a little “ditty” as the senior Brumley would call it, became one of the most covered tracks—Johnny Cash, Kanye West, and Alan Jackson have taken a stab at the song, and Allison Kraus and Gillian Welch even recorded their version for the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?—and Brumley later started his own music publishing company in 1944.
“Grandpa was a genius,” says Brumley. “He used to say, ‘if you never get too far from the people, you’ll never be too far from the mainstream,’ so he always wrote songs that the general public could identify with, and a good song like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ just becomes part of the fabric of America, and has been part of the culture.”
Bernier adds, “‘I’ll Fly Away,’ when it comes to the foundation, is an example of a song that was written for one purpose, being more of a Christian gospel type of song, but then if you look at the people who have covered it, from Puff Daddy [“I’ll Fly Away” melody used in Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”] to the Boston Pops Orchestra, it has spanned multiple genres.”
When Brumley and her husband came across his plans to start a foundation centered around helping children through songwriting, a vision he never saw before passing away in 1977. Finding his papers on the foundation was a sign for Brumley, who is dyslexic and says songwriting helped her communicate and learn when she was younger, which is something I’ll Fly Away incorporates into the programs, often mixing songwriting into mathematics, and other elements of learning.
“I grew up around songwriting, and telling stories and seeing how music can connect people,” says Brumley. “If you’ve ever written a story, or if you’ve written a song with someone else, it is such a personal thing, to share that time and your thoughts and your stories with someone other than yourself. You expand, and start throwing out these crazy ideas—and sometimes 99 percent of them don’t work—but you also start to become more vulnerable, and I’ve seen this happen with all of our kids.”
Expanding the reach of the foundation internationally, I’ll Fly Away has partnered with the Batley Grammar School in Yorkshire, England to pilot a program linking nearly a dozen kids, ages 13 to 15 in the U.S. with a songwriting partner in the U.K. Established in 1612, music programs and have remained an integral part of the institute, and regional education system, under Kath Davies, who is coordinating the I’ll Fly Away songwriting camp in England.
Working with the Grammy Museum in Mississippi to create a virtual songwriting platform, the songwriting program will begin in June and stretch over a five-week period, meeting every Tuesday via Zoom, and is something Brumley and Davies, who met more than five years ago at a Music Cities Convention in Lafayette, Louisiana, hope lays the foundation for a program that can continue on, and globally.
“Music is part of everybody’s lives, whether you want it or not,” says Davies. “It’s around us, whether it’s TV or radio, or something broader than that. The idea of connecting with somebody, another young person who lives in the states is exciting. You might be in a really small village surrounded by hills and sheep but have a fabulous relationship and share similar feelings or frustrations with someone in Mississippi. If we can start those connections and those bridges, we could just keep growing it, and it can reach its full potential.”
For Davies, who leads cultural development for Kirklees Council, the district which includes Batley, the area’s school system is heavily rooted in a greater regional music program, moving into 2023.
“This is really about helping children, young people to know that they’re part of this big, wide world,” says Davies. “There are huge potentials that could be had through music and kids being empowered to create their own song and their own music and to release their aspirations and potential… and dream big.”
Today, her grandfather’s vision still keeps Betsy grounded in the foundation. Reflecting on that first songwriting program, it still speaks to the greater aspiration for I’ll Fly Away. Some of those students moved into high school, many retaining a connection from those early writing sessions.
“It really changed the whole school dynamic, because these kids are not arguing, there’s less fights, and there’s less racial hatred among one other,” says Brumley. “If we can do this in a school, think if we can do this nationwide, then internationally.”
Brumley admits she tends to live in a “fantasy world,” but she does believe in a world where music can heal, connect, and close the divides. “I believe that everything can be good,” she says, “and you should look at the good in everything.”
She adds, “These kids are the next generation of leaders. If we can get them writing songs together and building these friendships through music think about how good the world’s going to be 15, 20, 30 years from now. We’re all going to know each other—all the company leaders, the politicians, the leaders of our world will know each other and they will be united by a song they wrote when they were 12 or 13 years old.”
The magic in I’ll Fly Away is that the songs created continue to touch those who made them well beyond the writing session, geographical distance, and language differences.
“Every little thing matters,” says Brumley. “These songs touch people, because that’s what music is about, touching people, so it keeps me grounded to remember that this. What I’m doing has nothing to do with me. This is about me being able to show people that they can use music to make things better, and to further the world for good.”