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In the year following September 11th, one of the places one could turn for solace or to vicariously express grieving, or even rage, was to music.  You rarely hear people speak so openly and so often about the therapeutic value of music as you have in recent months.  The release of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising was greeted not just as a musical event but as a potential moment of catharsis for the whole country.  One of our favorite musicians  would sum everything up for us in one definitive album.  This was of course asking far too much and while Mr. Springsteen's disk is quite good it has hardly obviated our need for other music, nor will any other single album nor any other artist.  But I wonder if maybe The Rising did come right around the time that we're, many of us, ready to move on.  Not move on and forget, but move on to the next phase in our national life.  I wonder in particular if other folks, as I do, feel the need to listen to songs of affirmation now, rather than of decimation.

If you do feel such a need and you've a sense of adventure, you might enjoy Gavin Bryars' unique Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.  Be warned though, don't go running out to buy it.  Listen to some samples first and let me try to explain what you're going to hear.

In 1971, Mr. Bryars, who is one of England's best regarded minimalist composers, was helping with the audio on a friend's movie.  He found a bit of tape that featured an old man singing a short religious verse:

    Jesus' blood never failed me yet
    Never failed me yet
    Jesus' blood never failed me yet
    There's one thing I know
    For he loves me so ...

He took this bit of found sound and while the old man, or tramp as he's referred to herein, sang it over and over, Mr. Bryars gradually added accompanists, so that continuous loop of the lonely ditty was eventually joined by a string section or an entire orchestra or whatever he had on hand.  The composer used variations on this theme that apparently became legendary for their effect on listeners and one earlier version was the first release on Brian Eno's Obscure Records label.  For this new definitive (perhaps?) version Mr. Bryars added a part specifically for Tom Waits who had written expressing his admiration for an earlier version.  The liner notes describe the sections of the work as follows:

    1. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra I]
    2. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Tramp With Orchestra II]
    3. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra III]
    4. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra IV]
    5. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp and Tom Waits With Full Orchestra]
    6. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Coda: Tom Waits With High Strings]

It fades in from silence onto the tramp singing by himself.  He's gradually joined by strings, then by a full orchestra, then by Mr. Waits, then the orchestra and the tramp fade away until it's just Tom Waits with strings and then by himself and back to silence.  It lasts for seventy-four minutes with that one unchanging verse being sung the whole time.

Sounds annoying, huh?  You'd think it would be, but instead it's mesmeric and uplifting.  Sounds like it must be ironic or even sarcastic, eh?  But it's not.  Although Mr. Bryars does not share the stubborn sentiment of the old man's song, he quickly understood that any piece he composed around it had to "respect the tramp's humanity and simple faith".  He succeeded brilliantly and his composition is a compelling affirmation that takes on something of the quality of a chant, working on an almost subliminal or subconscious level.  It has an anodyne effect, leaving the listener cleansed, healed and profoundly moved.  Or, at least it does me.  But, as I said, it's a very unusual piece of music, so try to give it a listen before you take my word for it.


Grade: (A)


OK if you can take it - I listened to it on Radio 3 this week and in the end had to turn it off because it actually put my teeth on edge. Monotonous and heart-wrenching combine to make it impossible to listen. Maybe you have to be religious, which I am most decidedly not.

- fargesii

- Oct-20-2006, 13:40


I just met with this piece of music this week. It was the second item in a concert of British music broadcast by BBC Radio 3. I had just returned home from work and was getting supper, so I was flitting from room to room, with radios on in both places. I'd enjoyed the first item, so kept the station tuned, but didn't hear anything of the announcer's intro to the second piece; I just became aware of an old man's quavery voice singing the same lines over and over, and wondered what on earth it was - it really began to get on my nerves but I was busy and not able to get to the radio to turn it off, so it went on and I thought 'oh, it will stop soon'! But it didn't, it just went on and on and then I became aware of some orchestral accompaniment creeping in behind it, and it started to become quite mesmerising, if still annoying, and this continued for a while more, the accompaniment building all the time and the same quavery voice singing the same lines over and over - and suddenly, to my complete surprise I found myself thinking of my long dead grandfather (who was known to sing unaccompanied on occasion)and I burst into tears! The whole thing has haunted me since, hence my seeking out websites like this - once I knew the story, that it was an old homeless man, now dead etc etc, of course the whole thing became even more poignant. So, an amazing discovery and well worth seeking out, but I'm glad I came upon it in the way I did. The unquenchable human spirit, eh?

- Janet Moat

- Oct-20-2006, 08:09