The only time I ever got stopped for speeding was early one Sunday morning when I was driving to church listening to this song. It was surely grace and mercy that kept me getting a ticket, for I do believe that, though I wasn’t going more than 10 miles over the speed limit I was in fact flying. Transported.
I love hearing Bozie Sturdivant sing this song.
But it wasn’t until years later I learned that, while Sturdivant was the first to record “Ain’t No Grave,” the song was actually written by a Pentecostal Holiness preacher named Brother Claude Ely. Listen to his version. It’s the same song, but what a difference! Sturdivant sings like a man pulling against heavy chains. Claude Ely is out to blind Death with a bright light and escape on wings of joy.
So where did this song come from? Claude Ely was born in Pucketts Creek, Virginia in 1922. As an adult he became a traveling revival preacher, driving from city to city. By one account, “He would drive a car, steering it with one hand, and with the other he would announce with a bullhorn, ‘Later tonight at 7:00, I’ll have a tent set up in the middle of town, please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost.'” Gladys Presley and her son Elvis went to one of those meetings.
Brother Ely’s ministry and influence spread. He become the first Pentecostal Holiness recording artist signed to a major label for strictly sacred music and songs. “Ain’t No Grave” became so well-known that today it is sometimes credited simply as “traditional,” as it is on Johnny Cash’s posthumous release. Cash’s interpretation of “Ain’t No Grave” has since became the foundation of a global collective art work, The Johnny Cash Project.
“Ain’t No Grave” is one of those songs you can’t believe somebody wrote. There are so many versions and they are so different. Each one powerful, haunting, defiant, triumphant. How can one human creation become the vehicle for all these individual expressions of the collective hope? How can a person be open enough to let that much of the Spirit flow into the world? How can a three-minute song reveal the miracle of the Church–we, though many, are one. One body in Christ.
When the final trumpet sounds, I’ll be getting up, walking around. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.