20 April 2007

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Jesus' Blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus' Blood never failed me yet
It's one thing I know
For He loved me so ...

In the late 1960s, Gavin Bryars wrote the music for a documentary about street life in London. One of the shots was of an old alcoholic singing an old hymn he remembered.

He wrote:

"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 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."

In 1993 he recorded his final version of the piece in 5 movements with a Coda, featuring, in the last two movements, Tom Waits accompanying the tramp. You can hear a fragment here. You will either love it or hate it (though bear in mind that that piece has taken more than an hour gradually to build up to this point.) I love it.

It does for me what Taize Chant does for other people: it takes a very simple motif and repeats it again and again. And again, and again, and again, for an hour and a quarter. There is a wonderful musical conceit: improvisation around a piece of improvised yet unchangeable performance; but I can barely listen to the music for listening to the words, the words printed above, repeated every twenty seconds or so, for the entire length of the piece.

The CD went missing nine years ago. This is a chaotic house, and books and CDs go missing for long periods of time. A twenty second fragment of music easily sticks in the mind, however, and I have never lost it. It accompanies me frequently, especially when things are conspiring to get me down. It conveys the simplest of truths, especially at Easter: Jesus' Blood never failed me yet. But not just at Easter: I have twice had the coffin of a parent on my shoulders, as I trudged across a cemetery with a gaping void in front of me, and each time, these words filled my mind.

Searching this evening for things to go to a jumble sale, my daughter found a box full of videos and CDs. And guess what: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet was in it. She is 13 and thinks that it is rubbish. She might be right about the music - well, she isn't, but you know what I mean. But the message is sublime, and I am uplifted. God is Good.

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