Johnny Cash & Brother Claude Ely – Aint No Grave!

‘In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed … Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?’
(St Paul 1 Corinthians)

‘When Brother Claude Ely would get up to sing, I mean he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was like the heavens would open up’ (Dennis Hensley lead guitarist at Brother Ely’s Revival meetings)

‘Aint No grave gonna hold my body down .. Gonna get up out of the ground!’ (Brother Claude Ely)

Christmas Cracker 5

As I said in CC1 I often, to the delight and/or outrage of my friends, casually drop the name of an obscure artist into conversation stating that they recorded one of the greatest records ever made. I then respond to the blank stares by swooning in mock horror while exclaiming, ‘What do you mean you’ve never heard of ….’

Well, I’m gonna do it again today – what do you mean you’ve never heard of Brother Claude Ely?

He only recorded one of the greatest records ever made! I’ll brook no doubt about it, ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ represents an inspirational peak in American gospel music and is a cornerstone of the treasury of American popular music in the 20th Century.

Prepare to be amazed!

Hearing that it’s no surprise to learn that Brother Claude, a heavy set man sporting a gold front tooth, wearing a white suit and cowboy hat, prowled his stage like an impatient panther. Preaching, singing and praying like a man possessed he worked up a torrential sweat that necessitated tender ministrations from a series of acolytes.

Now, you can unquestionably hear the influence of Claude’s soul shaking testifying in the epochal careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. If there is such a genre as Rockabilly Gospel Brother Claude was its only true monarch.

Elvis’ mother, the sainted Gladys, definitely attended the electrifying revival meetings where Brother Claude preached the word of The Lord and set the house alight with his fiery flailing guitar and burning bush vocals.

They say Elvis himself was blessed by Brother Claude and saucer eyed he must surely have learned a lot from Claude about how to lift an audience to ecstasy.

Brother Claude was born in Pucketts Creek, Virginia in 1922. He was brought up in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition and it soon became clear that Claude was one of those who felt the spirit profoundly.

The legend goes that he wrote, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ as a TB stricken 12 year old in 1934. A Sears guitar was brought to him in his sick bed and then .. ‘By the hand of God my fingers began to play the chords and a voice came into my mouth to sing. From that day on I have been playing guitar and singing’.

Following spells as a miner and WW2 serviceman Claude became a full time preacher in 1949 – a minister in his own Free Pentecostal Church. He carried the divine message message with him as he criss crossed The Appalachians singing and preaching.

Arriving in a new town he would drive one handed while bellowing into a bullhorn, ‘Tonight I’ll set up a tent in the middle of town – please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost’.

As soon as those physicists at CERN figure out how to set up a time machine I’m gonna book a trip back to Apallachia in the early 1950s and get with the Spirit with Brother Claude!

The canny Sid Nathan at King Records out of Cincinnati recognised how powerful a draw Brother Claude was and arranged in 1953 for a live recording to be made at a Courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky.

So, we have the manna of a captured performance from Brother Claude at the height of his very considerable powers.

In addition to his travelling jubilee Claude reached out across the airwaves through his, ‘Gospel Ranger Show’ which greatly expanded the reach of his preaching and the number of his devotees.

Brother Claude raised roofs, wrecked churches and burned barns all the way through to his death, at 55, in 1978. And, when he died he was performing what else but, ‘Where Could I Go But To The Lord’.

Where indeed! Brother Claude Ely, after all his holy exertions, is at rest now. Waiting for the trumpet to sound. Waiting for the trumpet to sound.

Johnny Cash, one of the Mount Rushmore figures of American music, was a great song collector. Throughout his life and career he had an ear out for remarkable songs. Songs that would sing in the blood and challenge the spirit. Songs that he could incarnate; bringing his extraordinary physical and spiritual intensity to them.

Johnny Cash, to his cost, knew all about the fallibility of mankind, all about sin and redemption. So, when he sang a Gospel song he was always a pilgrim who knew that his journey home would not be without snares and painful desert wanderings.

And, as death loomed large, in his epic ‘American’ recordings he set down a one foot in time, one foot in eternity, version of, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ that will haunt you.

This is the sound of a man, a pilgrim, who is bone tired, footsore and weary from decades of journeying. The ominous simplicity of the recording suggests a man jettisoning the inessential as with courage he knowingly, painfully, head bowed, eyes dimmed, readies himself for the last few strides of his earthly journey.

It’s a journey whatever our faith or lack of faith, whatever life we have lived that we will all, one day coming, have to make.

For some, listening to Brother Claude and Brother John lightens the load we carry.

Notes:

Ace Records has issued a fine compilation of Brother Claude’s King recordings called, ‘Satan Get Back!’ The 23 glorious tracks it contains should be in every collection.

Macel Ely, the nephew of Brother Claude, has with the assistance of the wholly wonderful Dust To Digital publishing/recording company put together a superb biography/oral history complete with CD called,’Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely’.

The American Recordings series by Johnny Cash, produced by Rick Rubin, may constitute one of the greatest American autobiographies.

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