Health and Fitness

Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold Our Bodies Down

Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold Our Bodies Down


1934

Twelve-year-old Claude Ely was dying in Virginia, stricken with tuberculosis. As his family huddled in prayer around his bedside, the boy began to sing:

Ain’t no grave

Gonna hold my body down

Ain’t no grave

Gonna hold my body down

When I hear that trumpet sound

Gonna get up outta this ground

Ain’t no grave

Gonna hold my body down

Claude eventually recovered. And the healing in his lungs was so complete that he grew up to become a singer and preacher known for his freight-train volume and Pentecostal gusto. In adulthood, he traveled the South as the “Gospel Ranger,” proclaiming the resurrection power of Jesus in one righteously raucous revival meeting after another.

On October 12, 1953, almost 20 years after Brother Ely’s boyhood healing, King Records captured him in a “live worship” recording session at the Letcher County courthouse in Kentucky. The audio for “Ain’t No Grave” has been preserved, and listening to it is a visceral experience. “Ain’t no …” Claude sings, like he’s pulling a boulder back in a slingshot. “Graaaaaaaaaaaave,” he hollers, like he’s letting the boulder fly. Other worshipers join him, shout-singing and clapping on off beats in a Spirit-fueled Pentecostal Holiness style, overpowering the microphones with gloriously distorted exuberance.

If Ely delivered “Ain’t No Grave” like a sonic earthquake, perhaps it’s because he could trace the song’s conviction back to a literal earthquake. Consider how Matthew describes the moment in history that makes the song true: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it” (28:1–2).

That angel must have made quite a sight, reclining on the boulder the Roman army had been certain would keep Christ sealed in his tomb. Then he delivered the news that changed absolutely everything: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (v. 6). As Brother Ely might have declared it, no grave could hold his body down!

The “violent earthquake” in Jerusalem that morning was nothing compared to the seismic shift in the cosmos. Every person who encountered the risen Jesus was confronted with the magnificent reality that, in the words of C. S. Lewis in Miracles, “[Jesus] has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.” Maybe it’s only right that Ely’s performance of “Ain’t No Grave” is more battering ram than melodious choir.

Still, Ely’s honky-tonk rendition is only one of many versions of this song. Earlier recordings include an exquisitely soulful 1942 performance by a domestic worker named Bozie Sturdivant, as well as a 1946 barrel-house piano rendition by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who sang the song at her own mother’s funeral. These renditions have a familiar, well-worn feeling to them, suggesting, as some music historians believe, that earlier variations of “Ain’t No Grave” appeared in Negro spirituals dating back at least to the late 1800s.


The core refrain of “Ain’t No Grave” seems to be more of a primal human expression than the property of any one artist. The song has since been adapted by countless musicians over the years, including Tom Jones, Russ Taff, Robert Duvall, and Molly Skaggs. Many of us first encountered the song through Johnny Cash.

2003

American country legend Cash was days away from death. With the help of his friend and producer Rick Rubin, he continued to sing and record almost to his last breath.

Well, look way down the river

What do you think I see?

I see a band of angels

And they’re coming after me

Ain’t no grave can hold my body down

When the recording was released on the posthumous album American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010), listeners encountered a fragility in his legendary voice that made the performance porous and transcendent. Rock critics struggled to find words to describe the effect. The Washington Post’s Bill Friskics-Warren wrote about the “spiritual, even biblical” quality of the music. More pragmatically, Ann Powers, a writer at the LA Times, dubbed the project Cash’s “Hospice Record.” Which, by all accounts, was exactly what it was.

2018

My mother was in hospice. I was lying on the couch next to her bed, holding my own breaths in the pauses between her increasingly shallow ones. She’d been unresponsive for days, and I knew her body would soon be in the grave.

“To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” I whispered (2 Cor. 5:8). She seemed absent from her body already. All that remained was an illness-ravaged shell. And yet, it was still a body I loved.

I held her hand and enacted the code she taught me in childhood: Three squeezes mean “I love you.” I traced the remnants of her final manicure on the edges of her fingernails, evidence of her love of color and her enjoyment of chats with the salon technician. I adjusted her pillow and remembered the way her shoulders would shake next to mine when something struck us funny at church and we tried to suppress our laughter.

I found myself thinking of a stanza in Cash’s version of “Ain’t No Grave,” one you don’t find in many of the other renditions:

Well meet me, Mother and Father

Meet me down the river road

And Mama, you know that I’ll be there

When I check in my load

Ain’t no grave can hold my body down

That’s when I was almost startled to remember that, because I am a Christian, I believe not only in the resurrection, but in the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of this body, the one right in front of me. No grave could hold my mother’s body down.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body has never come naturally to me. I was a mature student in graduate theological studies before I realized I had never seriously considered the final portion of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” (emphasis added). I was sold on “life everlasting.” But subconsciously, I think I imagined it in a decidedly unbodily form. How could the bodies that we know decay in the ground (or, in some cases, we cremate into ashes) be a part of our future?

A professor instructed me to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. When I did, it seemed like the apostle was reading my mail. Paul reminded me that if we are convinced Christ has truly overcome death, then belief in the resurrection of our bodies is not only plausible, but essential.

If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (vv. 12–14)

Then, as if sensing my tendency to divorce our resurrected bodies from the ones we have now, the apostle pressed further.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (vv. 35–36; 42–44)

It began to dawn on me that our spiritual bodies will be a transfiguration (rather than an obliteration) of our current ones. The God who made bodies loves them and has truly wonderful plans for them. “The old field of space, time, matter, and senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop,” suggests Lewis. “We may be tired of that old field; but God is not.”

In the Gospels, all who met the risen Christ encountered him in corporeal human form—yet he could walk through walls, disappear at will, and ascend into heaven when the time was right. “The body we will rise with will be like Christ’s glorified body,” muses Peter Kreeft, “immortal and perfect yet truly body, as Thomas found when he touched the Lord’s wounds.”

The early church surmised that our risen bodies will be characterized by subtlety (matter and spirit so in sync that walls are no longer a barrier), agility (the ability to travel wherever we want instantaneously), impassibility (immunity to illness or injury), and glory (like the luminosity of Christ at the Transfiguration). No wonder Brother Ely found the resurrection something to hoot and holler about.

Today … and the Future

Today, Brother Ely, Bozie Sturdivant, Sister Tharpe, and Johnny Cash are in the presence of the Lord yet still anticipating the Day of Resurrection. (So, for that matter, are the apostle Paul, C. S. Lewis, and my mama.) What a moment it will be when “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye … the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52).

Maybe then, as we grin at each other and admire our same-but-different, gloriously transformed bodies, we’ll sing it all together:

When I hear that trumpet sound

I’m gonna rise right out of the ground

Ain’t no grave can hold my body down!

Carolyn Arends is director of education for Renovaré as well as a recording artist whose most recent album is Recognition. She lives with her family in British Columbia.

This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.

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