A Little Musical History – “Ain’t No Grave”

Lately, Bethal Music has been receiving some much deserved attention for their rendition of a piece of classic American Gospel. Even our church, Rivers Crossing Community Church, had its worship team perform a beautiful rendition of it as well.

Funny thing about that day – going into service, we were given the weekly handout and the title “Ain’t No Grave” immediately jumped out at me. I turned to my wife and asked, “Are they gonna play some Johnny Cash today!?” Because the fact is, for many years now, this has literally been the only version of this song that I have recognized:

Thing is, I simply love this version. It’s gritty, haunting, and (for lack of a better term) “real“.

But as is my nature, after we heard the Bethal Music version at church, I turned to my wife and said, “I have to understand the history of this song!” As expected, it has a rather storied past:

Ain’t No Grave (also known as Gonna Hold This Body Down) is a traditional American gospel song attributed to Claude Ely (1922-1978) of Virginia.

Claude Ely describes composing the song while sick with tuberculosis in 1934 when he was twelve years old. His family prayed for his health, and in response he spontaneously performed this song. Originally recorded by Bozie Sturdivant in 1941 in a slower, Appalachian gospel style and in 1946-7 by Sister Rosetta Tharpe with barrelhouse piano; the song in Ely’s version was recorded in 1953 but composed in 1934. Many notable artists have performed the song, including Johnny Cash on the posthumous album American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

In 1967 the song was featured in the film Cool Hand Luke while Luke (Paul Newman) is digging a grave, performed by Harry Dean Stanton.

In 1989 Russ Taff covered this song on the album The Way Home and also as an extended version on the 1991 album Under Their Influence.

In 1997 it was featured in the film, The Apostle, performed by the movie’s star Robert Duvall.

In 2006 Crooked Still recorded the song on the album Shaken by a Low Sound.

In 2012 a cover was recorded by Scott Lucas and the Married Men for their Blood Half Moon album. Through the latter-half of 2018 this version was played on tour by Scott Lucas’ primary band, Local H.

In 2015 Tom Jones recorded the song on his Praise and Blame album.

In 2017, Bonfire Records Bluegrass recording artists, Wilson Banjo Co. recorded a cover of “Ain’t No Grave” on their album Spirits in the Hills.

In 2017 a cover of the song by Hidden Citizens appears in the trailer for the film Aftermath.

In 2017, a version of the song performed by Bror Gunnar Jansson was used over the end credits of Episode 1 of Damnation.

In 2018, the song was used as the end credits to the final episode of the first season of Altered Carbon.

In 2019, the song was covered by the band Cageless Birds on their album Ain’t No Grave, and appears on the Bethel Music album Victory, with Molly Skaggs singing the lead vocals in both songs.

Johnny Cash’s version:

Johnny Cash covered “Ain’t No Grave” shortly before his death in September 2003. The recording was released on February 26, 2010, as part of a posthumous album titled American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

In 2010 Cash’s version of the song was featured on the episode “Patriot Down” of NCIS.

In 2011 WWE professional wrestler The Undertaker briefly used Cash’s version as his entrance theme in the lead up to and including his match at Wrestlemania XXVII with Triple H.

In 2012 Quentin Tarantino used Cash’s version for the trailer for Django Unchained.

In 2016 Cash’s version was featured in the end credits to the first episode of Westworld.

In 2017 Cash’s version was featured in the second trailer for the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

In 2017 Cash’s version was featured in the 2017 BBC television documentary The Scottish Bounty Hunter starring Christian Matlock.

And yes – I love the Bethal Music version as well!:

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