Gavin Bryars, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

 

 

A well known early work of the contemporary English composer Gavin Bryars is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971). I feel compelled to post it here because it is a unique and stirring example of religious music, one exhibiting deep and sincere religious feeling. The piece can be accessed on YouTube at

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is based on a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the vagrant, an old man, had improvised and which Bryars heard by serendipity. It is based on a 26-second recording of the homeless man singing outside Waterloo station in London. The improvised hymn, which Bryars composed musical accompaniment for, consists of the vagrant singing the words:

Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know for he loves me so.

On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, before the piece gradually fades out.

The piece is divided into five sections, within which we hear the recurring refrain. It begins with the tramp singing without instrumental accompaniment — his voice faint and almost inaudible. As it progresses, the musical accompaniment is varied from section to section: string quartet, low strings, no strings, full strings, full orchestra.

Astonishingly — given that it is based on a 26 second recording of an improvised hymn — the whole piece is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes long.

 
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According to 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” [which Bryars recorded].

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.

http://www.webcitation.org/699Wuhif4

 
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Columnist Stephen H. Webb called the piece “[t]he most Christological piece of music I have ever heard” and describes the work as follows:

At first we hear only the tramp’s voice, but then the strings gently begin; as if to say that no voice, no matter how rough and untutored, is without support. As the music slowly progresses, the string quartet follows the tramp’s lead but keeps a respectful distance, ready to provide full instrumental support while honoring his vocal freedom.

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/04/jesus-blood-never-failed-me-yet

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

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