selection from the cover of Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely
Last night NPR's All Things Considered featured a Radio Diary with Macel Ely, the great-nephew of the legendary preacher and gospel singer Brother Claude Ely. Here, from last night's broadcast, is the founding moment of Brother Claude Ely's artistic and spiritual mission:
Claude Ely was born in 1922 in Puckett's Creek, Va. When he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that he was going to die as a child. His uncle Leander gave him an old guitar, which he would practice on his sickbed.
"Even as a child, he really had a very strong personal relationship with God," says Roberta Pratt, who was a member of the Cumberland Pentecostal church and knew the family.
When he was sick, Pratt says, Claude's family gathered in his room where he was in bed and prayed for him. And then, according to Pratt, Claude said, "I'm not going to die." And he started singing a song.
Ely says he learned that the family felt that God had supernaturally healed Claude. And they believed that God had given him a song: "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down."
I first came across Brother Claude Ely's music on Dust-to-Digital's essential box set Goodbye, Babylon, and I was excited to learn that these same folks were working to release a book-length biography authored by Macel Ely with companion recordings. Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely is now available.
As suggested above, "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" is his most iconic recording, and it's a perfect introduction: a song that just takes a hold over the listener.
Here is Johnny Cash's version--the last song The Man In Black ever recorded.
In this final clip, Macel Ely speaks with The Knoxville News Sentinel about how he came to write a book on his great-uncle's life and music: