Monday, 19 November 2012

Albums for Life: 94: Gavin Bryars: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

This is probably the least played album on my list (it sends Di running for the hills). 
I've always craved music that moves me.
I love a sad song.
'Jesus Blood...' goes far beyond the possibility of saccharine song.
This is no design, no calculated creation; it is rooted in real life.
It's not an easy listen but I never cease to be profoundly moved by it. 
The first time I heard it I was knocked sideways by its potency. 
It turned me inside out; made me ashamed to court sentimentality; there's something almost voyeuristic in the listening; I still find it impossible to sit through without welling up and making seal noises; probably the reason that it gathers so much dust...
The back story is well told by 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 tramp'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."

The album contains various versions; small orchestra/large orchestra etc.
I've included a fairly intimate arrangement including an oddly compelling 'duet' with wannabe hobo, Tom Waits...
Please be sure you're in a quiet room when you listen.
If it's your first time it deserves your best attention.


  1. Hi Trevor - this is indeed an extraordinary piece of music. Once heard never forgotten.

  2. I'm so glad you turned me on to this hypnotic beauty many months ago. Generally, I disdain repetition of any sort. This may be the singular exception.
    I played the clip you reposted yesterday just before the commute to Myrna's OC appt, and this earworm looped away in my noggin the entire day, providing a soothing peace that is truly unexplainable.

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