Ain’t No Grave

I’ve been listening to a collection of incredible music from the ’40s and ’50s by Holiness preacher Brother Claude Ely, which is inspiring in all kinds of ways, but also deeply frustrating.

For one thing, as much as I like to denigrate religion, it is one of the few things capable of instilling people with the kind of deep conviction and emotional depths that leads to this kind of art.  Listening to this guy sing and holler and preach, listening to his congregation weep and wail and scream — it makes me feel ashamed of all the shit I’ve talked about people of faith.  They can create stuff like this; who am I to mock that?  I don’t really believe in the soul, but if there is such a thing, these people are gripped in it.  They are moved and wracked and awed, they are shot to the heights of human feeling to sing what they are singing and say what they are saying. Every calculated, trite, cynical love song I’ve ever heard — shit, throw in the genuine and sincere ones, too — is nothing next to what’s being expressed here.  These are the voices, panting, out of breath, pummeled by their manifestations of belief like a physical beating, of people who genuinely believe there is a higher power, and who are paying tribute to him with a purity and grace that should be what religion is about, always.

And yet:  if I met them, I’d probably be a little creeped out by them.  The women in the crowd who swoon and howl like they’re being ripped bodily to Heaven?  They’re more than a little crazy.  They likely believed a lot of things I would find offensive, and certainly believed a lot of things I would find absurd.  Now, Claude Ely wasn’t fucking around.  He wasn’t like the guys in Uncle Tupelo, singing gospel songs just because they love the music:  he meant it.  The God he sang to was as real as stone to him, as demanding as the seasons.  He sang out of joy, sure, but also out of obligation.  And whatever was in him, whatever spiritual element that told him that the sheer enormity of his God, the sheer terrible omnipotence of Jesus’ love, the sheer unfathomable profoundness of the Holy Spirit, insisted that he take the gift of his voice and his music, buried under sweat and fat and small-town desperation, and pump it out into the world as loud as he could make it — whatever was in him, it is not in me.  I no more believe in his God than I believe that B.G. has so much ice he can skate on it, nigga.

But what is it, then, the reaction I have to this music?  It twists my guts, it closes my throat, it makes my arms and legs flail around like they’re trying to pluck joy out of the air.  It widens my eyes and expands my mind.  It makes me want to hoot like those crazy church ladies in the audience, while still giving not even a little credence to the creed without which it wouldn’t exist.  If it’s not God — and it’s not — what is it?  It’s music.  It’s the amazing grace, the fire of glory that humans are capable of no matter what the object.  I’m not saying this music could be about anything, a girl, a boy, a trip to the beach, a sunny day, a Nazi flag.  The love of God — the love of the God of the Holiness Pentecostals — made this music, and nothing else could have.  But other things have inspired other people to make other art, and it is that spark of inventiveness, that astonishing human ability to take one man’s trash and turn it into a million men’s treasures, that makes me react the way I do?  Who the fuck is Gloria to the American public?  Nobody and nothing, and rightly so.  But if the right person cares enough about her, she becomes an object so glowing that we can’t even look at her anymore.

I’ve quoted D. Boon’s line about being religious about man and not about God that I fear I’ve stripped it of its breathtaking power.  But that’s what it is, with this record.  The feelings I get hearing the dead man from Pucketts Creek, Viriginia give himself over to Jesus in song are religious feelings, not a razor’s width different from the ones he felt about God:  but I feel them about him.  What God meant to him, his genius means to me, and they come together in that music.  It doesn’t matter that he had an entirely different attitude towards that music than I ever will.  It doesn’t matter that I get something out of it entirely different than he put into it.  What matters to both of us is the music; the aim is true, even if the targets are different.

4 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Huey
    08/03/2011 at 1:35 AM

    I was listening to an interview with Mavis Staples on WXRT once, and they asked her something like “Did anyone tell you, after making all of this wonderful gospel music, that you couldn’t sing the blues – the devil’s music?”, and her answer was just priceless.

    “The blues ain’t the devil’s music! The devil ain’t got no music!”

    You might be giving a little too much credit to religion, though. As a musician (albeit a mediocre one that never made much money doing it) I can tell you that there’s three broad stages in musical development. In the first, you’re just playing the notes. If you’re looking at sheet music, you’re probably just playing notes. If you have to think about the mechanical things you need to do in order to get the right notes out, that’s all you’re doing. In the second stage, you’re trying to use the music as a tool to convey emotions: I want this part to be happy, this bit to be sad, this next chunk to be angry, and so on. “I want to make people dance” seems to be the most popular, although I admit I prefer James McMurtry’s “I want people to drink more beer”.

    In the last, and this is a place I’ve only been inside of a half-dozen or so times in my life, you are joining with the music like a lover. It is showing you things, and you are showing it things, and both earlier levels of notes and phrasing and emotions just fall away. …and in the back of your mind you have two thoughts: “This is the most amazing thing I have ever done” and “Man, I hope I don’t fuck this up”. When you get to this point, audiences can feel it, and get caught up in it. Non-musicians will say things like “hey, that guy’s really good”, but musicians will just stare, open-mouthed. And being a musician in this state is a tremendous high. It’s zen. Become one with the music.

    Claude Ely had that. Mavis Staples has that. …but so did Jimi Hendrix. So does Bruce Cockburn, and Tom Waits, and thousands of others.

    …these days, mostly I just play notes.

  2. Jason Barrett
    08/03/2011 at 9:37 AM

    I read Brother Claude Ely’s biography earlier this year and was awe struck with how such a simple, humble man could change the world of music. This may be a good resource for others that find this style of music both precious in a historical context, but also mind-boggling in its raw delivery. I found the book on his website … I’ve really enjoyed reading it and it comes with a music CD filled with other songs by Brother Claude Ely and his family back in Pucketts Creek, Virginia. Enjoy!

  3. Zhu Wuneng
    08/05/2011 at 11:43 AM

    Word. Have you heard the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan is Real”? equally crazy, equally incredible. No irony whatsoever, no nostalgia.

    I think, as a former religious fanatic and current almost rabidly secular atheist, that most people simply don’t get the depth of feeling that religion taps into. It’s easy enough to make fun of fundies, and do I ever, but the truth is that mystics glimpse pieces of themselves and the world around them that the average sane, normal urban liberal is simply never going to see. Flannery O’Connor is the only American writer who I think really got this, but it’s a principle that produces a lot of great art, music, and even acts of incredible moral courage that can sear the soul. Unfortunately, it’s all completely nuts.


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