Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

And now for something completely different.

I heard part of this on the Radio the other night, and thought I’d share it here. It’s definitely one of the strangest pieces of music I’ve ever heard, but I find it very moving and, in its own way, compelling. The full story can be found here, but is summarized the composer Gavin Bryars:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way.

I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

Several versions of this piece exist. This one, recorded in 1993, is 74 minutes long. It begins with the unaccompanied voice of the old man to which instrumental accompaniment of increasing depth and texture is gradually added and, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is also the voice of Tom Waits…

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One Response to “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

  1. VERY, VERY INTERESTING HOW MUSIC STIRS THE SOUL, CHINA

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