One of the many things in life that continues to amaze me is how the tiniest and happiest of coincidences can have profound, long lasting effects. To use a home-grown example, if I hadn’t been on Pink Floyd’s Bebo page about 7 years ago and noticed a guy with a cool display picture leaving a comment about how much he liked the band, and I hadn’t left him a message when I noticed we had similar taste in music, I wouldn’t ever have come across my co-conspirator Steven and you probably wouldn’t be reading this today. (Perhaps you wish you weren’t) Anyhow, the point of this of course relates to the subject of today’s article, Gavin Bryars’ 1971 arrangement known as Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Not a composition: an arrangement. The happiest of coincidences brought this piece to light for, I believe, the better of many who hear it.
In 1971, Gavin Bryars was working in London on a film project with a friend. The film focused on homeless people around Elephant and Castle, and while they were being filmed, a number of the men began to sing. The singing was recorded, but ultimately not used for the film, and Bryars was given the unused audio recordings. Upon listening to the recording later at home, Bryars noticed one of the homeless men singing a religious song called Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and he noticed that his little segment formed a nice 13-bar loop. Using the tape mechanics, Bryars cut and looped the piece, not unlike Steve Reich with his pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, but unlike those pieces he added an orchestral accompaniment. The result is a tender and triumphant piece of remarkable power for something so simple. The old man’s singing, with his thick London accent, his struggles with the high notes and his frequent slips out of tune are bittersweet in their approachability; his childlike optimism and faith (or for the religious skeptics out there, his childlike naivety) in spite of his homelessness are touching and inspiring. The hymn the old man sings is unknown, (could he perhaps have made it up himself?) the old man himself is unknown and he died before he could ever heard the result of Bryars’ arrangement of his voice. As a result of this remarkable story, there is something harrowingly transcendent about this already transcendent piece of music; it has become a hymn of its own, a mantra for the ages, a constant reminder of the steadfastness of God in all situations: even in the absence of health, wealth or life. This old man lived and died in the knowledge that God was watching over him, and hearing his perennially optimistic voice echoing this thought from beyond the grave is encouraging to those who share his belief. For those who don’t, there is something still humbling about the witnessing the sheer happiness of an old tramp in spite of possessing nothing that society values today: “Yes we may be hidden by rags, but we’ve something they’ll never have.”
|Bryars, a happy coincidence.|
I credit Bryars on this release for his truly wonderful orchestral arrangement, which manages to evoke the simple faith of the tramp without delving into overt sentimentality or manipulation. The slow crescendo and simple layers of the strings are all that is needed: the power of the piece comes from the tramp’s voice; the music is merely there to enhance it. But as a piece, I don’t want to give the credit to Gavin Bryars. As I mentioned above, this piece of music exists in its current form as a result of a happy coincidence, a discarded audio fragment of an unknown, nameless man singing an unknown hymn, A million other things could have happened to stop this existing: they could have gone to a different part of London, the old man may not have been there, he may have sang something different for the cameras, heck, he may not have sang anything at all, but for some reason he sang this. It’s a piece so simple and transcendental that it feels like it has always existed, and Bryars was merely the earthly vessel for bringing it to light. For those who are skeptic of its worth as a composition, don’t treat it as one: treat it as a document, a demonstration of the power of faith and a noble spirit. This man will forever be unknown to us, but the emotional power of his singing is something I will never forget.
Words – Adam.