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A Nephew's Quest: Who Was Brother Claude Ely?

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A Nephew's Quest: Who Was Brother Claude Ely?

A Nephew's Quest: Who Was Brother Claude Ely?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

One of the last recordings Johnny Cash made before his death was song called "Ain't No Grave."

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) There ain't no grave can hold my body down.

BLOCK: But Johnny Cash didn't write this song. "Ain't No Grave" was written in 1934 by a 12-year-old boy named Claude Ely. Ely went on to become an itinerant Pentecostal preacher and singer. Outside the Appalachian Mountains, his name was barely known, yet, Brother Claude's music influenced some of the pioneers of rock and roll.

Producers Joe Richmond and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" have this story about the man known as the Gospel Ranger.

Mr. MACEL ELY: My name is Macel Ely. I am the great nephew of Brother Claude Ely. Two thousand one, I was going on a vacation to London, England. I went to a record shop and they began to play music over the intercom system.

Brother MACEL ELY (Gospel Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Heaven, heaven, I want to go to heaven...

Mr. ELY: And I recognized it as my Uncle Claude's music.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want to Go to Heaven")

Brother ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven...

Mr. ELY: Just to make sure I wasn't going crazy, I went to the store manager who was at the register and said, are you playing Claude Ely's music? Then he took me down an aisle and there was an actual display of Brother Claude Ely that had a picture and they had blown it up and cut it out. And they had old 45s. They had old LP albums.

I stood there for an hour and people were coming in the store and they were buying my uncle's music right in front of me.

Brother ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven. I want to go to heaven.

Mr. ELY: It really freaked me out, to be perfectly honest. I had grown up hearing my uncle singing and preaching and praying, and it to me was just the same screaming and shouting that we had grown up in church hearing. I had no idea that outside of those Appalachian Mountains that people had heard about Brother Claude Ely.

And so, 50 years after these recordings, I wanted to know who this man really was.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELY: So every free weekend that I had, I would get in my car. You know, if you go to these small eastern Kentucky towns, you can hit 10 or 11 churches in a two-mile radius. And if it said Pentecostal or it said Holiness, I was inside knocking on the door asking if there was people there that I could speak to, and did they mind if I recorded them.

Okay, I've got it recording, just tell me your name.

Ms. LINDA MORGAN: Okay, my name is Linda Morgan. L-I-N-D-A...

Mr. ELY: And I would begin to ask people: Did you ever hear of a man named Claude Ely?

Ms. MORGAN: And I could still remember, just seems like yesterday, he had a tent revival in Cumberland, Kentucky, where I was raised...

Unidentified Man: The first time I ever met him, he just opened his mouth and let her slide.

Ms. CHRISTINE CORNELIUS: My name is Christine Cornelius(ph) and I'm from Bell County.

Mr. ROBERT CHARLES LONG: My name is Robert Charles Long(ph) of Rose Hill, Virginia.

Ms. JEANETTE BARRETT: Jeanette Barrett(ph)...

Mr. DANNY HUDSON: Danny Hudson(ph)...

Ms. MARY LYNNE FRANK: Mary Lynne Frank(ph) from Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Mr. ELY: I've been to hundreds of churches, thousands of miles. Over nine years, I've interviewed over 13, 1400 people.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want to Go to Heaven")

Brother ELY: (Singing) Going to run up the road. Going to run up the road.

Ms. ROBERTA PRATT (Former Member, Cumberland Pentecostal Church): My name is Roberta Pratt. I was a member of the Cumberland Pentecostal Church, where Brother Claude Ely was pastor. Even as a child, he really had a very strong personal relationship with God.

Mr. ELY: Brother Claude Ely was born in 1922 in Puckett's Creek, Virginia. And when he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that he was going to die as a child. So his uncle, Leander, gave him an old beat-up guitar. And he would practice it on his bed.

Ms. PRATT: He was dying and they had called the family in. And they gathered in the room where he was in bed and prayed for him. And then he said, I'm not going to die and he started singing the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Brother ELY: (Singing) There ain't no grave...

Mr. ELY: They felt that God had supernaturally healed him. And they believed that God had given him a song. And the name of that song was "There Ain't No Grave Going to Hold My Body Down."

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm going to the river up north, bury my knees down in the sand. Going to a holler high, hosanna till I reach that promised land. Oh, there ain't no grave going to hold my body down...

Mr. ELY: And that song became an anthem among Pentecostal Holiness people in the Appalachian Mountains.

Mr. TERRY MONT: It's just a plain, simple song that we'll never have to face eternity without God. It's a hope song. It's just - it's a hope song.

Brother ELY: (Singing) ...going to hold my body down.

Mr. ELY: He didn't have a formal education. He never went to high school. He had the reading ability of maybe a first grader. But as he was entering adulthood, he felt that it was important for him to be on the road. And so he would travel from city-to-city. And he would wear cowboy hats and a white suit.

Ms. PRATT: He was a very heavy-set person and he had a gold tooth in the front. And he had been nicknamed The Gospel Ranger.

Mr. ELY: He would be driving a car. And with one hand, he would drive with the steering wheel. In the other, he would have a bullhorn outside the window and he would announce: 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.

Brother ELY: Thank the Lord, Hallelujah. I'm glad today that we can stand on holy ground. Thank the Lord.

Mr. MONT: And the way he would carry himself, and that little guitar slung on his back and that big old smile. Claude Ely, he didn't disappoint anybody at all.

Brother ELY: I've got the joys of God down in my soul and I'm not ashamed. Hallelujah.

Ms. MORGAN: And I was having trouble with my back as a child, and so I got into the line to be prayed for. And the power of God came down and I was healed right there in the line.

Brother ELY: Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

Mr. DENNIS HENSLEY (Guitarist): My name is Dennis Hensley and I traveled with Brother Ely playing lead guitar for him in his revival.

Brother ELY: And I feel good in my soul and I feel like singing today. Don't feel much like preaching but I feel like singing...

Mr. HENSLEY: When Brother Claude would get up to sing, I mean, he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was just like the heavens would open up.

Brother ELY: Thank the Lord.

(Soundbite of song, "Cryin' Holy Unto the Lord")

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm crying the holy unto the Lord and I'm crying the holy...

Mr. ELY: People heard about this country preacher that sang like a black man.

Mr. HENSLEY: He played like a washboard style guitar, like an up-and-down, up-and-down type rhythm like you're painting a house.

Mr. ELY: He would shake and gyrate from one part of the stage to the other. And they would have young men running up to wipe his forehead 'cause he was sweating.

Ms. PRATT: People would cry. People would clap their hands. Everybody was just kind of caught away in the spirit.

(Soundbite of song, "Cryin' Holy Unto the Lord")

Mr. ELY: Gladys Presley, Elvis' mother, was a huge fan of Brother Claude Ely's ministry. People have talked about Gladys and Elvis getting blessed at Brother Claude Ely's tent revival; and jump and sing and praise, while Brother Claude Ely laid hands on them and prayed for them.

Mr. HENSLEY: And that's what Claude was all about. He wanted you to feel the same spirit of the Lord that he felt.

Brother ELY: Thank the Lord, hallelujah. Thank the Lord.

Professor KEVIN FONTENOT (Historian, Tulane University): My name is Kevin Fontenot and I'm an expert on country music history at Tulane University.

In 1953, King Records heard about Brother Claude and wanted to record him live and in action at a Pentecostal service.

Ms. PRATT: Brother Ely came to the courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky, for a few nights' revival.

Prof. FONTENOT: King Records set up their equipment in the courthouse. Those were the initial recordings that made Brother Claude Ely pretty popular.

Brother ELY: Thank the Lord. Get up here right close to the microphone. Don't be afraid to sing for the glory of God...

Ms. PRATT: The courthouse was packed. It was full of people.

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy. That's all right. Well, holy, holy, holy. Well, holy, holy, holy.

Prof. FONTENOT: This was the first time we really get to hear a Pentecostal service live on record. For that reason, it's a very valuable historical document.

Ms. PRATT: It was like a church service, really. You would hear people saying amen, clapping hands...

(Soundbite of clapping)

Ms. PRATT: ...and such. Pentecostals clapped off the beat. Other people who clap will clap with the beat and it drives Pentecostals crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRATT: We prefer our style of handclapping.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. HENSLEY: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, they all grew up in the Pentecostal church, grew up on that same style that Brother Ely grew up on.

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy.

Prof. FONTENOT: It might be hard to, oh, say, well, this comes from here and that comes from there. But if I was going to make a case that Pentecostal music had an impact on the rock and roll, I wouldn't tell them anything. I would play them Brother Claude Ely and I would say, listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Send Down that Ladder of Rain Brother")

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, Send down that rain, boy. Send down that rain.

Prof. FONTENOT: Until you hear Brother Claude's music, you know, "Send Down that Ladder of Rain," and you hear that rhythm come in there. And then you hear them sisters behind him getting down too, you just don't know.

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, Send down that rain. Oh, send down that rain.

Thank the Lord. Let me just catch my breath, sister. Thank the Lord, Hallelujah.

Mr. ELY: May 7, 1978, is when Brother Claude Ely passed away. He was in his church in Newport, Kentucky, where there happened to be a tape recorder that someone brought to record the parts of the service.

Prof. FONTENOT: And when he got through preaching, he went over and sat down at the organ and started singing a song, "Where Could I Go But To The Lord."

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. FONTENOT: And he got middle ways through the song, and he just fell backwards.

Mr. ELY: And you can hear the screaming and the moaning, people praying for him. He died of a heart attack in front of his entire congregation. He died singing and preaching and praying.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Mr. ELY: (Singing) Ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

Prof. FONTENOT: Since that time, there's been many, many artists that recorded Claude's song, "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down."

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

Prof. FONTENOT: Some have slowed it down. Some even made it faster.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Ain't no grave can hold my body down.

Prof. FONTENOT: The list just goes on and on, and it just makes you feel good to know that a little country preacher from down in Virginia wrote that song, and it pretty much went all over the world.

Mr. ELY: A few years ago, I went to the cemetery where Brother Claude Ely was buried, in Dryden, Virginia. And when I arrived, there was a handwritten note taped on his cemetery plot.

And it just simply said: Dear Brother Ely, you sung it and preached it to us. I know one day you'll come up out of this here ground. Thank you for being so good to us. It made a big difference, and we won't forget it.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Grave")

Brother ELY: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

BLOCK: Macel Ely has written a book about his great-uncle's life called "Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely." Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" and edited by Deborah George.

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