Lingering Could Be Your Doom

By  |  November 10, 2020
“Crossroad” by Mark Cáceres “Crossroad” by Mark Cáceres

The Gospel According to Brother Claude Ely


I

t begins like a rumbling storm. Brother Claude Ely, surrounded by a gathering of the Pentecostal-Holiness faithful who have come to hear the traveling preacher lead a revival meeting at the Letcher County courthouse in Kentucky, gently plucks the guitar strings and intones the first three syllables: “There . . . ain’t . . . no . . .” And then the flood: The word “grave” drags and rattles in Ely’s throat as he slaps out percussive chords on his acoustic guitar, “an up-and-down, up-and-down-type rhythm like you’re painting a house” as a musician who played with him would later put it. Backup singers—likely young women from Ely’s family and followers of his ministry—join in the frenzy. To say they’re singing doesn’t do justice to the noise they’re making; they sound like pilgrims in distress. Ely, a former coal miner, sounds like he’s hollering from the bottom of a cave. The assembled worshipers begin to clap, on the off beat in the Pentecostal way, punctuated by the yips and whoops of the faithful. More than six decades later, cooped up in my house in the midst of a plague, I am yipping and whooping along. It’s a holy ruckus, a whole lotta shaking, the sacred music of the mountains and the hot fever of boogie. According to the Book of Acts, on the day of the Pentecost, a sound came from Heaven like a violent wind and filled the room where the apostles were gathered. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues. It was in this spirit that Claude Ely sang. 

“There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” was recorded on October 12, 1953, by King Records—the upstart label from Cincinnati that initially specialized in white “hillbilly” music (“If it’s a King it’s a Hillbilly,” the logo boasted) but soon began branching out into r&b. King’s talent scouts had showed up incognito to revival meetings to hear Brother Claude Ely, a white country evangelist that some listeners would later mistake for a Black singer when they heard him on records or the radio. Ely agreed to let King record a worship service, and the local judge lent the courthouse as a venue for a revival.1 The building was packed with worshippers, with the crowd extending out to the front steps and the lawn. They could catch the spirit down there, too. It was hot and stuffy in the courthouse, so the windows were open. You could hear Ely’s voice from three streets away. 

I first came across Brother Claude Ely and “Ain’t No Grave” some years back in a piece by journalist Jimmy McDonough on Gary Stewart, the honky-tonk crooner born in Letcher County, one of my all-time favorite singers. McDonough described a “scratchy old King gospel 45” that Stewart cherished. “Stewart used to belt this number out in a manner that would give pause to even the most fervent Holiness snake-handler,” he wrote. “One day he tore through it on the acoustic and then hissed, ‘I can do ANYTHANG! Even crawl out of the damn GRAVE if I want to!” Well. I found the song. Once a vinyl rarity, it was re-issued on a 1993 CD from Ace Records, compiling Ely’s King recordings, and is now easily findable online. Ever since, I have played it over and over again. By my lights, it is one of the great American recordings of the century. 

Sounds like a train, according to my three-year-old daughter, who stomps and stamps and struts through the kitchen when I put it on. It is one of those songs that commands motion, that seems to be pulsing not so much in your ears as in your blood. “What’s a grave?” she asks me. I don’t answer and she keeps stomping happily.

“Ain’t No Grave” is a resurrection song, which we might consider a spiritual matter; think of Paul writing to the Corinthians, “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” But Ely’s performance is so undeniably physical. He grunts and yowls and bangs, like a cornered animal. The rapture in Ely’s hands is a sweaty tumult, an athletic feat. This is a song about death, but I know of no performance that so viscerally captures the endurance of being alive, breath by sacred breath. It gives pulse and beat and fury to the words, again from Paul, that everyone who came to see Ely preach and sing would have known by heart: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

 

They called him the Gospel Ranger. He had little formal education, only a rudimentary ability to read. But that hardly mattered. He had heard the call. He had been saved and sanctified, moved by the Holy Ghost. He knew the Bible, knew the Word, and for decades he traveled from town to town to deliver the good news. He was a big man with a valorous belly. He had an easy smile, with an extra glimmer when the light caught his gold front tooth. He wore a cowboy hat and a white suit. When he got to town in his Chevy, he’d drive down the main drag, one hand on the steering wheel and a bullhorn in the other: “I’ll have a tent set up . . . come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost.”

He was a preacher and a healer. Brother Claude Ely. They knew his name in the high country, in the backwoods hollers and mountain towns and coal camps. They came out to hear him, the way the Gospel came alive in the way he spoke, frenzy and truth. Come out and experience the fire. They came to hear the music that he made, only it wasn’t his music, he swore—it came from another place. They came to hear the ferocious shuffle of his guitar. They came to hear the ragged ecstasy of his tenor. A taste of Heaven, they said, so much presence of the Lord. Backsliders would run through the aisles hollering, believers again. Ely might be so moved that he would sing a single song for near an hour straight. He would shimmy and gyrate across the stage, his shirt soaked through with perspiration, young acolytes hopping up to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The Pentecostals call it getting happy, this delirium and grace. A woman who saw Brother Claude Ely when she was a young girl at camp meetings in Barbourville, Kentucky, recounted later, “When he would get happy it would be like just like a river of joy coming out of him.” 

“He wasn’t by any means the best singer that ever lived,” one pastor who preached with him at revival meetings recalled, “but he was truly one of the most anointed.”

“Claude had the Holy Ghost on him,” his wife Rosey said in a 2005 interview, “and people knowed that.” 

Countless such testimonials were collected by his great-nephew Macel Ely, who published a biography of Ely in 2011. Others who remembered Claude Ely fell back on a common slogan of mountain religion: “better felt than told.” Among those who were present for Ely’s performances at the Letcher County courthouse, some swore that the recordings do not come close to capturing what took place. One of my favorite stories about Brother Claude Ely involves a legendary service at a fellowship meeting in Wichita, Kansas—three separate recording devices malfunctioned during one song, which people there figured was a sign that Ely’s anointed singing was too powerful for mere technology to keep ahold of. 

But we do have these records—from services that lasted several hours, King was able to capture nine songs in October 1953 and then another six in June 1954 (Ely later put out LPs recorded in a studio for King and other labels, which have some gems but lack the untamed velocity of the early “live” recordings of Pentecostal-Holiness worship). Ely’s performance of “Ain’t No Grave” was included on the treasured gospel collection Goodbye, Babylon compiled by archival record company Dust-to-Digital; in a review for the Weekly Standard, Matt Labash wrote that Ely sang and played “with a ferocity that suggests he was getting sawed in half while performing.”

Asked why so many converted at Ely’s revivals, one woman who attended the October service told Macel Ely, “When he sung . . . it was like he was gonna shake it open right there.”

“There is something ennobling about watching fallible man . . . stumbling around to find God in the dark,” wrote Labash in his review of Goodbye, Babylon. “Meanwhile, we are left with the documentation of their struggle, the bottleneck slides and jug blows and handclaps of those who left the next best part of themselves behind on scratchy vinyl, pointing the way for the rest of us, still stumbling around in the dark.”

For me, there has been something vivid and almost hallucinatory about listening to Ely now, in this time of ambient dread and what feels like Old Testament scourge. 

In June, COVID-19 began to spread at the assisted living facility where my parents live. Locked in their room, they gave us updates on the numbers—those infected, those who died. They were spared. I did not tell my parents I was praying for them, because that is not the way we talk. But I could have told them that. It was true. 

In August, a tropical storm hit and knocked our power out for the better part of the week. Out of the mouths of babes, the psalmist says: My daughter took a look around and told us, “First there was the sickness. Then there was the darkness.” 

There are so many things I cannot explain to my daughter. There are so many things I cannot explain. Just about any account you read about the development of religion in Appalachia will mention the difficulty of life and the proximity of death in the impoverished region. But we might keep in mind that as far as Claude Ely was concerned, resurrection and rapture were not metaphors. I am not saying I’m a convert, I’m just saying that his voice is in my head: There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down. When I hear that trumpet sound, I’m gonna get up out of the ground. ’Cause there ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down. 

 

Claude Ely was born July 21, 1922, in Pucketts Creek, a rural Appalachian hollow in Lee County, Virginia. Population (then and now): around 145. A good deal of what we know about his life is thanks to the efforts of his great-nephew Macel Ely and his book Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely, much of which is an oral history based on interviews with family members and more than 1,000 people in the Appalachian and Pentecostal-Holiness communities who had memories of encountering Ely. 

Claude Ely’s great-grandparents settled in the Appalachian region from Ely, England. It was rugged and remote country; according to local lore, one early settler in the Ely clan raised his family in a giant hollow tree. 

In 1920, Daniel Ely married Daisy Cooper and they began attending the Pucketts Creek Baptist Church, the only church in the hollow at that time. Daniel had a Christian upbringing in line with a strain of the Restoration Movement tradition that had spread through the American frontier in the nineteenth century, which looked down on untamed expressions of emotion (and musical instruments) in church. Like many in the community, he was highly suspicious of the new radical religious movements that had begun spreading through charismatic revivals in the early twentieth century, deriding the outbursts of “holy rollers.” 

Macel Ely recounts that “by 1921, several of the women and a handful of men in the hollow began experiencing fits of shaking, dancing, screaming, and speaking in unknown tongues during the church’s altar services.” At some point, Daisy—who was raised Baptist but had family connections to the Methodist church and had grown up hearing stories of fiery revivals and camp meetings from the old days—fell in with the holy rollers and started attending their small meetings, full of clapping, shrieking, and wild music. As she explained to Macel Ely, at one of these prayer meetings, God “put fire in my bones” and she began speaking in tongues and hollering and dancing in a fit of religious ecstasy. Daniel was so alarmed by his wife’s behavior that he locked her in the house, partly in fear that he might catch whatever was afflicting her. 

Eventually, they came to an agreement: Daisy could attend the Holiness prayer meetings if Daniel joined her. They went to an all-night prayer meeting, where Daisy testified that the Lord “sanctified me real good, and yes . . . filled me with the fire and Holy Ghost just the other night. It’s something this old world couldn’t give to me, and I ain’t about to let the world take it away.” She again fell into a fit, only this time, Daniel felt the same spirit. Overcome by warmth and shaking, he began speaking in tongues. 

From that night on, Daniel was a holy roller, too. A few months later, Daniel and Daisy had a child. They named him Claude.

 

When Claude Ely was around twelve years old, he became sick with tuberculosis and the country doctor told him he would not survive. Here is how Claude Ely described what happened next, in the liner notes for an LP he recorded for King Records in 1962: “I was taken ill with T.B. and was given up to die by the doctors. They told my father to take me home and let me have my way and trouble me in no way. Around about a week later, as I laid on my bed, I felt the pains as they left my chest and body and I turned on my side and went to sleep.

“I had never played any music or sung any before, but as I awakened the next morning I heard the sound of music. Someone in the house was playing a mouth harp. I asked for it as a child would and wanted to play and sing. They gave it to me and I began playing music on this harp. My uncle had ordered a guitar from a mail order catalog and he got it on the same day after I had received my healing. . . . He brought it to my bed and laid it across my chest and by the hand of God my fingers began to play the chords and a voice came in my mouth to sing. From that day to this I have been playing the guitar and singing.” 

Ely’s survival and musical gifts were seen as a miracle among the local community, Macel Ely reports: “They believed the very hand of God must be on the child, whose purpose and calling were much larger than life.” 

It was during this time, the story goes, as a bedridden adolescent facing death from tuberculosis, that Claude Ely composed “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.” (One family friend recalled that when the family was gathered to Ely’s bedside, “he said, ‘I’m not going to die.’ And he started singing the song.”)

This is the story that Ely told his whole life—a story memorably featured on a long segment on Ely and “Ain’t No Grave” on NPR in 2011—and there is no particular reason to doubt that something like that happened. But the song’s origins are murky. Variations of the phrase in the song’s title may well have been used in Negro spirituals dating back at least to the nineteenth century, and several versions of “Ain’t No Grave” were recorded by Black singers in the 1940s. Folklorist Stephen Wade—who spent years studying the song for the 2015 book The Beautiful Music All Around Us, his magisterial investigation of a selection of Library of Congress field recordings—identifies a 1933 hymnal from the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly Black Pentecostal-Holiness denomination, as the earliest known appearance of the song in print. 

The first time “Ain’t No Grave” appeared on a record came when folklorists Alan Lomax and Lewis Jones recorded Bozie Sturdivant, a domestic worker likely then living in Helena, Arkansas, singing “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” at the Silent Grove Baptist Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in July 1942. The Sturdivant recording was released as a 78 the following year as part of the Library of Congress compilation Negro Religious Songs and Services. Five days before recording Sturdivant, Lomax and Jones also recorded the Friendly Five Harmony Singers, a gospel group from eleven miles north of Clarksdale, singing a traditional jubilee gospel rendition, “There’s No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” which wound up in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song.

Sturdivant’s version, a fervent blues with dazzling vocal flights and dips, is a remarkable and beautiful recording in its own right. Backed by the quiet humming of gospel quartet singers, Sturdivant’s performance—while rooted in traditional sacred singing—brings a cosmopolitan  flair to the Delta church. The Library of Congress liner notes describe it as jazz singing, but it’s really a kind of proto-soul music. Wade documents that Sturdivant had previously encountered the Chicago sound of the Soul Stirrers—listen close, and you can hear the seeds of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke (at one climactic falsetto turn, I even thought of Michael Jackson). 

For all of Sturdivant’s stylized bending of the notes, his rendition is subtle, marked by austere Baptist restraint. Two other versions of “Ain’t No Grave” released in 1947—first by the Two Gospel Keys, then by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—begin to feature the more demonstrative incantations of the Church of God in Christ style, and conjure some of the shuffling rhythms that in Claude Ely’s rendition reach a crazed gallop. Wade also notes a more obscure recording, an unpublished field recording made in 1946 in Winchester, Massachusetts, of a daughter of a former slave—a tantalizing hint, if not proof, that the “Ain’t No Grave” song refrain has much deeper roots than we know from the historical record. 

These various recordings have significant musical differences from Ely’s rendition, but the songs seem to draw from the same well. Some aspects of Ely’s verses and lyrics are divergent (whereas others feature the resurrection of Jesus, Ely instead includes additional details in his vivid depiction of the rapture; Sturdivant’s version uniquely includes a scene of Jesus on the cross). Macel Ely reports that hundreds of people he interviewed remembered Ely singing the song in the 1930s. Claude Ely’s relatives from the time told Macel that Ely’s boyhood song spread quickly in the Pentecostal-Holiness community, and Macel told me that the Ely family had close ties to the Church of God in Christ, which produced the 1933 hymnal (when Claude Ely would have been eleven) that was sold by mail from a church elder in Arkansas. 

Macel Ely argues that “the songs may have been birthed from the same idea, but Ely’s and Sturdivant’s compositions are not the same song.” Wherever a listener falls on this question, it is difficult to conclude that Claude Ely’s “Ain’t No Grave” was a wholly original composition. Wade believes that the appearance of the song in print in 1933 suggests that it circulated in the oral tradition long before that. But he was at pains to clarify that he is not disputing the truth of the Ely family stories. Such stories, after all, are themselves an invaluable piece of the folk tradition.   

For me, the force of Ely’s originality—the pepper and electricity of his rendition of “Ain’t No Grave”—is, in any case, not diminished if the source material came from tradition. Wade agreed. “Due to Claude Ely’s extraordinary, high voltage interpretation, it found a whole new life in tradition,” he told me. “So this song about renewal found rebirth all over again.”

It’s ultimately unknowable whether Ely encountered Sturdivant’s or other versions or whether others encountered Ely’s. I would say that the safest guess is that “Ain’t No Grave” was, in some form, a traditional sacred song that served as a kind of template around which singers could come up with their own riffs—or you might say preaching. 

In Bozie Sturdivant’s hands, it was a song of hope for Black Baptists in the Delta that shimmered with new sounds and new possibilities. 

In the hands of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who learned the song from her mother and sang it at her funeral, it was a jukebox scorcher, a raucous sound that seemed equally at home in the pulpit and at the medicine show. 

And in the hands of a young boy on his deathbed in a hollow in Pucketts Creek, it was a wild spark of life—a message, he believed, from God—that became a defiant anthem in the Pentecostal-Holiness community in the death-haunted mountains. And the early sound of rockabilly, though that wasn’t a word yet, which would travel much farther still. 

 

In 1940, at eighteen, Claude Ely enlisted in the United States Army, ultimately serving in World War II (where, at least according to family lore, he developed a friendship with fellow solider Joe Louis, who would eventually become heavyweight boxing champion of the world—Ely later told a cousin that Louis “teached me to use my fists real good”). While in the army, he had begun exchanging letters with a friend of his sister’s, a redhead named Rosey. He called her his “Virginia Rose,” and they married during one of his stints back home. When he left the service in 1945, he returned to Pucketts Creek and went back to the same job he had before the army, working in the coal mines. In September of 1946, Claude and Rosey had their first child. 

Claude Ely believed that he was called to go into full-time ministry. He felt that upon his return home, he had been “baptized real good in the Holy Ghost and fire,” and the Lord was asking him to go out into the world and preach. But he worried about whether he would be able to support his new family. Around this time, there was an accident at the mines, and Ely was rescued from a collapsed cave. When he was carried out on a stretcher and came to, he saw his cousin praying and speaking in tongues over his body. Ely believed that his life had been spared for a purpose. In the spring of 1947, he was ordained as a minister at a Holiness church in Stoney Fork, Kentucky, and he soon began his career as a travelling evangelist and singer. 

Ely’s ministry began with his fellow coal miners. “He was one of us,” one miner recounted to Macel Ely. “We knowed he loved us and cared about us. Sure, he preached the hell and brimstone to us, but he also got our toes tapping when he’d sing to us. We loved him for doing it.” Ely traveled throughout the region to sing and preach, including to coal mining camps that few others reached. He began preaching and singing on local church radio stations, and eventually started doing spots for secular stations as well. In 1953, he started hosting a weekly half-hour Sunday show, The Gospel Ranger Show, at WTCW, a new station just outside Whitesburg, Kentucky. In addition to performing at WTCW, Ely also did episodes recorded live at church services in Cumberland, Kentucky, via a wire running to a local station. After the notoriety of the King recordings and “Ain’t No Grave,” which proved an unexpected hit, The Gospel Ranger Show was syndicated widely on stations throughout the region.

Ely eventually pastored several churches in the area, but he was best known for his work as an itinerant evangelist, holding revivals throughout the South and later across the country, by his account preaching in all forty-eight contiguous states, as well as Alaska. 

Macel Ely reports that among those sure to come out and see Ely when he came to town was Gladys Presley, Elvis’s mother, who also sent correspondence and financial support to Ely’s ministry, according to Rosey Ely. Some remembered Gladys bringing Elvis to Ely’s tent revivals in his youth, a story that gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it. 

These accounts are based on recollections told to Macel Ely, both from people who were there, including Elvis’s boyhood pastor, and people like Sleepy LaBeef, the late rockabilly musician, who heard stories about Ely from Elvis himself. Some recounted Gladys and the young Elvis being blessed at a revival by Ely, who laid hands on them and prayed for them; others recalled that Elvis was moved to shake by Ely’s music. LaBeef long shared such tales that he heard from Presley. He was quoted in a British music magazine in 1983 stating that, as a youth, “Elvis followed Claude Ely from one tent meeting to another.” LaBeef told Macel Ely that Presley often told a story about a late night after a show in Texarkana in the 1950s, when Presley brought Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and June Carter to see Ely lead an all-night Holiness singing at a revival on the outskirts of town. 

As with all things Claude Ely, it’s hard to know precisely where the line is between fact and folklore. At the very least, Elvis and Gladys apparently owned Brother Claude Ely 45s, which remain in the private collection housed at Graceland, including “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” and “There’s a Leak in This Old Building,” which may have been the source material for Presley’s “We’re Gonna Move.” Presley, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, came up in or around the Pentecostal church, and Ely was well known in that community. They likely encountered his music; they certainly were saturated in his style of worship (one of Johnny Cash’s last recordings before his death was a cover of Ely’s “Ain’t No Grave”). 

“It’s sanctified singing like Ely’s that we hear echoes of in Elvis and Little Richard, in James Brown and especially in Jerry Lee Lewis,” writes New York Times editor Dana Jennings in his book Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music. “But not a one of them ever burned on record, not even Jerry Lee Lewis, the way that Ely burns on these recordings.” 

Amen. Few singers of the time so channeled the ecstatic fire that was destined to change the course of music and culture. You can hear the boogie in the brimstone, the ferocious country spirit, the rollicking rhythm. 

Here I must tread lightly. Ely himself understood his music as gospel. As Jennings put it, “The main difference is this: Most musicians were merely called by fame, by the Opry. Brother Claude Ely had been called by God.” He never claimed to have a hand in rock & roll, and was himself deeply skeptical of secular music (Ely turned down King’s requests to go on tour with secular artists, reportedly including the Famous Flames, featuring James Brown). Be that as it may. The way Elvis moved his hips was not so different from what he might have seen at a Pentecostal revival; the way Little Richard shouted and wailed is not so different from ecstatic worship. You can hear it in Bozie Sturdivant and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Claude Ely. You can hear it coming. 

But let us not get lost in antecedents, in projecting a future onto the past. Brother Claude Ely was a comfort to so many, in his time. And he is a comfort to me. I have lived a mostly soft life, a lucky life, with so many blessings. Which can make it hard to look squarely at this difficult season. Is it the spirit or the Spirit that throttles me when I play “Ain’t No Grave”? I do not know. I can only tell you that when I play this song, I feel somehow that I am there at that old-time revival, I feel like dancing, feel like getting happy, and I do—there in the living room, my troubles and my fears small but still troubling, still fearful—and I am unburdened in the charismatic revelry of this song, that something is released in me, something hopeful that endures. That I feel like new. And then my toddler tells me to play it just once more, to turn up the volume this time. Louder, she says, and she’s right: Play it loud. 

 

When Brother Claude Ely was ordained, a woman known as a prophet in the mountain community told him that she had a message from God—that his days would be numbered. Certainly, he lived his life as a man in a hurry. Death is coming, get right with God. He hustled as far and wide as possible to spread this message, as forcefully as he could. “Lingering,” he preached, “could be your doom.” That urgency and acceleration ring clearly in his music, which helps explain how the sound of his ministry hitched itself to an altogether different revival: rock & roll. A happy coincidence, perhaps. The Holy Ghost moves in mysterious ways. 

On May 7, 1978, Ely was performing the gospel standard “Where Could I Go But to the Lord?” at Charity Tabernacle in Newport, Kentucky, when he had a heart attack and fell off the organ bench. “He was just playing the organ and singin’ and just fell over, I reckon,” Rosey Ely told Macel. “I couldn’t get to him, ’cause the crowd of people . . . all I knowed was to scream his name.” Ely was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. 

Ely’s final preaching and singing were captured on an amateur recording by one of the congregants, and released the following year as one side of a vinyl record by Ely’s family—a harrowing recording that includes the shocked wails and prayers from the congregation after his collapse. The record was titled, Where Could I Go But to the Lord?   

It does not take a prophet to tell us that our days are numbered. We know it. The ancients knew it, too: For it is soon cut off, and we fly away. . . . So teach us to number our days. This is our baffling predicament, our cosmic joke: We have been gifted this utterly remarkable life, housed in a body that will not last. 

In what may have been the first of Paul’s letters, he wrote to the Thessalonians, nearly 2,000 years ago: For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

Claude Ely would have struggled to read that ancient text on the page, but he knew those words, in the mannered meter of King James’s translators. Such words were as much a part of the folk tradition as music, part of the tapestry of everyday lives. Ely sang, in absolute conviction, this gospel, this wild news about our souls. And how he sang! More than forty years after he died, I am filling my own numbered days with his song. Can’t no grave hold him down.


1. The October session has sometimes been listed as taking place in a church that Ely pastored, or at a service held at a radio station; after extensive research, Claude Ely’s great-nephew and biographer Macel Ely concluded that it took place at the courthouse, the first of two services held at the courthouse that Ely recorded for King. Wherever the location of the October event,  King recorded the service uninterrupted, preserving a kind of field recording of Pentecostal worship.  King edited out the preaching for the singles issued at the time; the first 78 sent to radio stations boasted on the label that the “sides were recorded at an actual revival service.” 


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David Ramsey is a contributing editor to the Oxford American. His work has been anthologized in Da Capo Best Music Writing, Best Food Writing, and the Norton Field Guide to Writing. He last wrote for the magazine about Shovels & Rope.