Gavin Bryars

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

    Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

    Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet is one of Gavin Bryars' most minimalistically constructed pieces, and at the same time one of his most emotionally intimate. Borrowing as it does a piece of tape-recorded "documentary" material of a religiously charged nature, the work finds itself in the company of a number of important minimalist and postminimalist works, including Steve Reich's seminal It's Gonna Rain, John Adams' Christian Zeal and Activity, and Brian Eno and David Byrne's Jezebel Spirit (from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts). Bryars' piece, however, assumes a much larger scale than even the longest of these pieces, unfolding and reiterating itself over the course of some 75 minutes. Whereas minimalist music is sometimes offhandedly associated the emotional neutralization of repeated materials, Bryars' work has the opposite effect: rather than numbing the listener's sensibilities, it heightens them; rather then imposing a postmodern indifference toward the subject matter, it forces a confrontation with it.

    The taped excerpt that serves as the "source material" of the work came from the cutting room floor of a documentary film made by the composer's friend, Alan Power, in 1971. Power had conducted interviews with a number of homeless or otherwise down-and-out residents of one of London's rougher quarters. Among the footage was a passage in which an transient old man sang a quiet spiritual tune: "Jesus' blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet...this one thing I know, for he loves me so." The man, Bryars was told, was of destitute circumstances but of a sound mind (he avoided alcohol altogether), and seemed quite unfazed by the apparent disparity between his difficult life and the sentiments of the song.

    As it appears in Bryars' work, the old man's song emerges slowly from silence, making several repetitions before it can be heard in its entirety. Bryars then slowly introduces an accompanimental chord progression that is first played by a string quartet, then eventually enhanced by the addition of plucked bass and guitar. As the instruments subsequently fade out, the old man's song continues and is eventually underscored, cumulatively, by a much richer sounding ensemble of low strings (for which Bryars has a special taste), then woodwinds, brass, and delicate percussion, and finally full orchestra and choir. At the textural apex the old man is joined, in an odd multimedia duet, with celebrity hobo Tom Waits. (Apparently, an early version of the piece Bryars had completed in 1971 had been one of Waits' favorite recordings, and he jumped at Bryars' invitation to participate in the later, extended version). Their duet concluded, Waits continues singing, to the accompaniment of high strings, while the "real" hobo's voice fades away completely. Such extended exposure to the little tune, heightened by Bryars' slowly evolving orchestrational variations, has a sobering effect. "Although the old man died before he could hear what I had done with his singing," writes Bryars, "the piece remains as a restrained testament to his spirit and optimism."

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    Various Artists
    Various Artists