Friday, July 30, 2010

Jesus' Blood never failed me yet: New-Old Find

Ps... I am working on this post.  It isn't finished yet.

Odd discovery: Jesus’ blood never failed me yet

I knew, when I heard the plaintive song of the "tramp" that I had heard this tune... these words before...But not these words, or in this setting.

Turns out, I was introduced to the song "Jesus' blood never failed me yet" by way of modern techno-pop band called Delerious - but that is kind of like finding the song "American Pie" by way of Madonna.  (A good take,  but I had to tell one of my daughters that the Madonna version, played on the radio a few years back, wasn't the original.)

From time to time I come across something that seems to be part of “art culture knowledge” about which I am totally clueless. Actually, all kinds of things fall in this category for me, as major portions of my life have been marked by almost Amish like distance from popular culture, and certainly from minimalistic choral or art-house film culture. 

Case in point, this music video and the music behind it - by modern-minimalist composer Gavin Bryars (with added vocals by Tom Waits)  which has now taken hold of my soul with its haunting images and beautiful chorus.

(Note: video contains some non-sexual nudity.   I believe it is the creation of xxxxx.   As it is, there are some dozen different "homemade" visual presentations of this same song on You-Tube.  Some seem to be efforts to get around the peculiar (unsettling?) imaging  original.  Here is a good link for those who prefer the song alone:

In a moment we'll get to the larger music piece and history from which all this springs.  For now (or later) here are a few more links of interest.

Extended 10 minute portion, with more robust Tom Wait Vocals

Same 10 minute section on my Pandora radio station.

This exquisit cover by the group Jars of Clay maintains the fragility of the original tramp song.

Beautiful Modern (techno-pop) adaptation by the group Delirious, but with the jarring addition of images from the Passion of the Christ.  (I have deep difficulties with the latter, beyond my explaining here,  and as such, much prefer the


The story behind "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet" from 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 add... 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 piece was originally recorded on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975 and a substantially revised and extended version for Point Records in 1993. The version which is played by my ensemble was specially created in 1993 to coincide with this last recording.

Gavin Bryars.

When Philip Glass asked me if I would be interested in doing a new recording of Jesus' Blood he assumed that I would do something similar to the first version and wanted to know what other pieces would be on the same CD. He was somewhat fazed when I said that I would do a version lasting the whole 74 minutes available.

I pointed out to him that I had no intention of simply multiplying by three the number of times each of the old repetitions would be done (an approach that would, perhaps of been his solution!). The original version had lasted for one side of a vinyl album - about 25 minutes - as I merely wanted to avoid a side-break. I decided rather to make the first 25 minutes exactly the same in terms of structure as the old version (to satisfy purists who, if they wanted, could listen no further) but then to take the music on another journey.  (For the whole telling see:

Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Short History, form Gavin Bryars’ website

The voice of this senior citizen conveys an unambiguous sense of childlike innocence in his tone carried by the song’s lyrics. Normally cockney accents of this type fall into cap-in-hand insincerity, but this sweetly humble old man leaves an incredibly powerful visual representation with a minimum of effort. Could it possible that Bryars worked some alchemical magic on this sample to draw so much from this tiny sliver of a man’s life? The open eyed adoration, the waver in his voice, the audible almost-smile at the phrase “…he loves me so” and his surety are all astonishingly clear.

This kind of faith and unwavering assurance that you will never ever be left, be lost or unloved is heart achingly tangible in these moments, affecting both those who share his beliefs and those to whom it remains unattainable (or perhaps unacceptable). And this is what Bryars is wordlessly reinforcing here; a respect at this man’s devotion and at the same time, with this melancholy arrangement, a broken hearted acceptance of something he can never have.

There is a tiny disgustingly arrogant pitying part of me that knows there is no eternal comfort to be found in Jesus, but this is overwhelmed by my own complete assurance that he has found contentment in heaven, a place that this black hearted atheist doesn’t even believe exists.

From Pandora, a great place to hear the song.
Gavin Bryars (born in 1943) is one of the most versatile British composers to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. He began his career playing double bass, but in the 1960s began composing in the experimental, conceptual tradition of John Cage. His best-known work, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, is a minimalist classic. Bryars is committed to collaboration and has worked with artists from various disciplines, including dance, theater, and the visual arts. He has gone on to develop a large body of lyrical work in traditional forms, such as choral, orchestral, chamber music, and opera. ~ Stephen Eddins, Rovi

5 of 45 people found the following review helpful:

God help us, January 22, 2006

By James Williams (Boston, MA United States) - See all my reviews

This review is from: Bryars: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Audio CD)

I can understand why people say they heard this once five years ago and have been unable to forget it. If you repeat a 15 second clip over and over for close to an hour it will be hard to get out of your head. But I am not sure why you would want to do that.

I cannot understand why people think manipulating an unpaid and uncredited drunk to the sound of weepy strings is an art form, or worse, a spiritual experience.

But some people do. So a word of warning, before you buy this CD listen to the clip. Then listen to it again. Listen to it a couple hundred times. Is this a spiritual experience? Are you in the presence of the divine? Then buy this CD. Help other customers find the most helpful reviews

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10 of 16 people found the following review helpful:

A Haunted Hallelujah, January 13, 2006

By sherri "sherri" (LaGrange, Georgia) - See all my reviews

This review is from: Bryars: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Audio CD)

This is a beautiful, theologically rich work.

My first hearing of the first movement, angered me. I was troubled by the irreverence of it, frustrated to have spent my money on something that obviously ridiculed religion. The reason? I hastily concluded that Gavin Bryars' and Tom Waits (whose thirsty music reflects a quest for God but hostility toward the body of Christ) had taken up a sacred song of Christian faith and drug it through the gutter.

On the lips of a drunk who is stumbling along, a mesmerizing melody announces to the world: "Jesus blood, never failed me yet. This one thing I know, that He Loves me so...Jesus blood never failed me yet."

The tension of the work begins here: Hasn't Jesus' blood obviously failed him? He stumbles along drunk, uttering a mindless mantra probably learned from the Salvation Army. In his stupor, religion is his opiate.

The recording is almost 75 minutes of this single loop.

As you listen to the recording, however, something profound happens, which I judge to be beyond the artists intentions.

At exactly three minutes into the field recording of the bum singing, he is joined with a musical background of violins. At this trinitarian moment, human and divine sympathy are evoked in the hearer, and one immediately senses that the bum is not alone. Later, other instrumental voices, and the cello, the instrument of grieving, joins him as well.

The work continues to develop with the addition of musical instruments entering as archetypal symbols of human community. Hence, the development of the work is as important as the content.

In the third movement, there is no music. Church bells are ringing, cathedral choirs harmonizing. The bum is strengthened now, not by human sympathy, but by the supernatural. The work continues through several more important and developmentally rich movements until the bum is joined in a duet by Tom Waits. Waits rich voice echoes, as in a chamber of eternity, a tunnel of time. His empathetic voice is grotesquely prophet-like.

I have listened to this work numerous times. I hear a new instrument and discover a different meaning each time. The end result, for me, is that the bum is incredibly strong...and his strength derives from his faith

In a strange way, this is an inspiring work, and reflects the subliminal desire of both artists, Bryars and Waits, to name the Eternal. This is probably about as close to the incarnation as they will get...and it may be the closest you will ever get...if your brand of Christian faith is crusted over with moralism.

Every seminary in America should hold chapel and let every seminarian experience this. Different sermons would emerge from our pulpits if ministers lived in its truth. I tremble, and sometimes weep, each time I hear it. Help other customers find the most helpful reviews

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