I heard Gavin Bryar’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” for the first time in college late one night while perusing the internet for new music. This was during a particularly dark period in my life after a recent breakup where I spent many a night on the internet distracting myself with music blogs, Facebook, or AddictingGames.com. I happened upon a positive review endorsing the piece and intrigued by the concept and backstory, I downloaded it and pressed play. Normally, I would listen to music on my laptop while continuing to browse the internet but minutes after the song started, I sat in my room frozen with tears forming in my eyes. What I had encountered was something much more than intriguing. Before long, I had closed my laptop and was lying on my bedroom floor; eyes closed and motionless.
An arrestingly beautiful piece, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is one of the most striking pieces of music I’ve ever encountered. It tends to reduce me to tears each time I hear it, no matter the environment. It’s a very personal song that I’ve returned to many times throughout the years since that first listen in college and each time I return I am always struck by the simplistic power that it has over me. Combing through some Youtube comments for the piece recently, I realized that many people have similar stories of encountering the piece for the first time and being stopped in their tracks. “Jesus’ Blood” seems to intervene in a cluttered, noisy world for most people. For me on that first time hearing it in college years ago, it seemed to temporarily muzzle that ever nagging voice of the “accuser of our brothers and sisters”.
“Jesus’ Blood” is composed from a repeated loop of a elderly homeless man singing the gospel standard about the sustaining power of Christ’s blood. Slowly and subtly the man’s voice is accompanied by a lush orchestral arrangement from Bryars. The piece starts with complete silence and gradually fades in the lone voice, unaccompanied for the first few minutes. His English voice is weathered and slightly sorrowful but there’s a tinge of hope to his declaration—a confidence in his old age in the one tried and true hopeful thing he knows. Over the course of the piece and as Bryars accompaniment fleshes out, “Jesus’ Blood” creates a patient and peaceful paralysis, leaving you motionless in its wake.
Gavin Bryars composed “Jesus’ Blood” in the ‘70s from an unused portion of a documentary that he was working on with a friend. Here’s Bryars with the backstory on the piece:
“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 [in the notes for the 1993 recording on Point, Bryars wrote that while the singer's pitch was quite accurate, his sense of tempo was irregular]. 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.”
More than just an emotionally arresting piece of music, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is an invitation to rest in the unending and unwavering proclamation of that old, old story that has not and will never fail us.