Dust-to-Digital Brings Brother Claude Ely Back to Life

The Observer first discovered the music of Brother Claude Ely on the Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital’s groundbreaking boxset of American gospel music, Goodbye, Babylon. (To give you a sense of how excellent that collection is, Bob Dylan gave a copy to Neil Young as a gift that Mr. Young subsequently called “the original wealth of our recorded music.”) Ely has one track on the 160-song collection, “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” a hit in 1953. His recorded legacy is small and difficult to find.

We were happy, then, to receive a copy of Ain’t No Grave, a wonderful new biography of the singing preacher, known as the “Gospel Ranger,” written by his great-nephew, Macel Ely, that Dust-to-Digital published this year. Ely wrote the song that gives the book its title when he was 12. The story goes that he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was told he was going to die. His uncle gave him an old guitar, which he would practice in bed. Presumably on his deathbed, with his family gathered around him, he announced, “I’m not going to die;” he began singing “There Ain’t No Grave” and went on living. The chorus is as follows:

There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down
There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down
When I hear that trumpet sound,
I’m gonna get out of the ground
‘Cause there ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down

On the recorded version of the song, the guitar and mandolin are slightly out of tune and are played sloppily, more like percussion instruments, but with a rare fervor that is unrelenting and spontaneous (the performance sounds like it was recorded in secret). It is impossible to deny its energy. Brother Ely’s voice is gravelly and powerful, booming over the handclaps of the small group of followers surrounding him.  “There Ain’t No Grave” is a carpe diem anthem that transcends its genre. It is one of the great precursors of rock & roll.

The younger Mr. Ely spent more than nine years recording over a thousand interviews with people in the Appalachian Mountains, where Brother Claude Ely is still a legend. Mr. Ely grew up hearing stories and myths of his great-uncle, who had amassed a group of loyal supporters in Appalachia for his wild tent revival meetings that were predominantly characterized by raucous singing. He was preaching and singing quite literally until the end of his life: In 1978, he died suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of a song in front of his congregation. The book is detailed and surprisingly objective. The edition itself is beautifully made; the lyrics and sheet music for “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” are sprawled across the inside cover.

Included with the book is a CD of ten performances. For anyone interested in the history of recorded music, this is an essential document, not only because Ely is difficult to find, but because the tape recorder is merely running, catching all the off-the-cuff energy of his cigarette stained voice. Like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Charley Patton, musicians with whom he should be ranked alongside of, Ely sang about religion with the fiery zeal that early rock & rollers applied to the decidedly more Satanic themes of big legged women, sweet little sixteens, and a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.  Ain’t No Grave rescues one of the classic country performers from undeserved obscurity. Dust-to-Digital Brings Brother Claude Ely Back to Life