Listen Tom Jones, “Ain’t No Grave”

A Welsh version of Elvis and a pop predecessor to Robert Plant, Tom Jones was maybe the first singer to have phone-numbered panties thrown to him onstage. But unlike many pop stars of any era, Jones a) has always really been able to sing, and b) has grown old gracefully, still looking as good as ever and singing with a confident and cool maturity. He took a left turn away from the sexual innuendo and relationship songs that made him famous on the 2010 album Praise and Blame, which featured the biblical resurrection classic “Ain’t No Grave.”

A song about the rapture of the church when believers in Christ will be called from their graves, authorship of “Ain’t No Grave” has often been misappropriated for decades, not uncommon for old blues and Gospel numbers. It was actually written in the 1930s by Brother Claude Daniel Ely, a Pentecostal Holiness preacher who was coined as the King Recording label’s “Gospel Ranger” of the Appalachian Mountains. Ely’s song is still sung in some churches today, and his original version was pretty much the same lyrically as what Jones recorded, though Jones shifted some lines around and sang them in different combinations. Both versions open with the chorus:

Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down
Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down
When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna get up out of the ground
Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down

Where Jones sings the chorus almost more like a straight eight-bar blues, Ely’s 1953 original added an empty bar to the third line and held each line of the chorus for an extra bar or more longer. Ely’s recording was somewhat akin to a bluegrass show at a tent revival, and his gutsy rhythm guitar playing was somewhere between British skiffle and rockabilly. Ely’s tent revivals were allegedly attended by a young Elvis Presley.

Some were surprised to see Jones, with producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne), record “Ain’t No Grave” and other Christian songs on Praise and Blame. Jones told Ben Hogwood of the online London music magazine MusicOMH that he was unapologetic to people who didn’t get it, or didn’t approve of his choices. “I wanted to make a gospel album,” he explains, “and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, it’s going to be Christian.’ And then I thought, ‘Well I am a Christian!’ I’m sorry, but I am! I’m not preaching here, I’m not trying to get Muslims to become Christians or anything. But as soon as people hear it they know what it is, and it’s a gospel album. I don’t see anything wrong with that!”

While Ely’s original usually went by the full name “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” Jones, and pretty much everyone else who’s covered it, just went with “Ain’t No Grave.” Jones’ version of the song was released a few months after Johnny Cash’s version on the posthumous album American VI: Ain’t No Grave, both reflecting the heartfelt sentiments of two legends singing a legendary song.

Read the lyrics.

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