Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Haunting Song

How a simple, yet deeply felt song can effect one – Even if it is sung by an old Tramp

I first heard this haunting small tune over a year ago, but it refuses to leave me alone.  The sound of that man’s quavery voice, even with its shades of Spike Milligan, is captivating in its simplicity and purity.

Before I start to discuss it, I feel that you need to hear it, so you know what it is I am so moved by.  So here is the shortest version of this little song as used by Gavin Bryars.

Do you see what I mean about the power of this simple bit of music?   And yes, it is Tom Waits you hear in this extract from a much longer work.

Here is what the composer Gavin Bryars has to say about the background of his use of this extremely powerful, if simple, song.

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.

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