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The True Story Behind One of the Strangest and Most Beautiful Hymns I've Ever Heard

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 10:08 PM Comments (13)

Composer Gavin Bryars was living in London working on a documentary about people living in poverty. During the recording, a number of people being interviewed broke into drunken maudlin ballads and even loud opera. But one old man, who, according to Bryars, was not drinking, sang a small verse of a religious song called "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet."

He sang it without irony. He sang it seemingly in childlike faith despite his dire circumstances.

The recording of the old man was never used in the film and it was returned to Bryars. When Bryars listened to it at home he found something beautiful in the old man's singing. He improvised a simple accompaniment to the verse that built around the man's singing. Shortly after that he took the tape to the recording studio where he worked. He copied the loop of song onto a continuous reel. Knowing this would take time he left the studio with the song playing to grab a cup of coffee.

Out into the studio floated the old man's words, haunting and faith-filled:

Jesus blood never failed me yet-

never failed me yet

Jesus blood never failed me yet -

there’s one thing I know

because he loves me so

Jesus blood never failed me yet -


When Bryars returned he noticed something odd. "When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued," said Bryars. "People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping."

He didn't understand why until he realized the tape had been playing the entire time he'd been gone and was causing a strong reaction in people. "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," he said.

Bryars added a swelling orchestral accompaniment around the man's voice and recorded it on Brian Eno's label in 1975. Since then, the song has moved millions. Including me.

I can tell you that the first time I heard it I was picking up my brother Kevin from the train station. Going through chemo at the time and suffering seizures at odd times he wasn't able to drive so the family would drive him in to work or the train on a daily basis. As I lived in Philadelphia and only came up during the summers, I was glad to help when I could.

So there I was waiting for him and flipping through radio stations when I heard this old man's warbling voice. In the beginning I couldn't even understand what he was saying but it soon had me transfixed. My brother came off the train and climbed in the car. Normally, he launched right in with jokes but he heard the song. We both sat in the car for twenty minutes listening. We didn't talk. We didn't drive. We just listened. We shared that moment.

So now I share it with you.

A sad note, the tramp (as he came to be known) died before he could hear what Bryars had done with his singing. I find it beautiful as millions of others have. I'll let you decide.

The first three minutes are completely without music and then the orchestration slowly builds around it.

 

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About Matthew Archbold

Matthew Archbold
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Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph's University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.