On Listening to Gavin Bryars “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”…

by Brendan Strong

I’ve been listening to this piece of music. I first encountered it on a Tom Waits CD that came with Mojo (I think).

This is a simple, haunting tune that begins with a tramp singing to himself the words “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (… with “There’s one thing I know, for he loves me so” over and over. Bryars took this little piece of singing, looped it and added some orchestration – and (later) Tom Waits’ voice.

You can read the story of how the music was developed here, on Gavin Bryars’ website.

I find myself haunted by this.

I should point out:

I am not religious, but I do love religious music. Often, the singers/narrators of religious songs are broken down, desperate, at the end of their tether.  The songs are stories of overcoming defeat or hardship; of resilience in the face of the cheap shots life throws at us, which can devastate us. I hear religious songs to be about human dignity, and “Going on” in the face of it all (as Beckett wrote). The dignity itself is simply painted in the colours and shape and sounds of God.

I do love music, but know little of its construction. I used to play piano and guitar. For a while some unfortunate clientelle of a wine bar in Waterford listened to me every 3rd Friday night screaming and playing guitar. Therefore, what I write here is more expression than interrogation of any formula/school of composition/etc.

Moving on.

Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” starts in silence. Slowly fading in is a light, reedy voice. Aged and perhaps a little weak, it is a voice against the silence from which it comes.  It says

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 –

And he continues, singing it again.  The “song” is one of loneliness (at the beginning, it is the voice alone one hears) and frailty. But it is also dignity and resilience against whatever may have turned this singer from a little fat baby, so loved, so cared for, so long ago into a tramp in what I presume is his later life.

Then, Bryars brings in the orchestration. At first, it is a couch or blanket or duvet, something cushioning this frail, lonely voice. Providing some comfort. For the listener – but also, I get the distinct feeling it is for the voice as well. And for the song.

The orchestration comes in many guises, melancholy. There are different string arrangements, there are horns, providing a place for this voice that came from nowhere.  Out of the abyss.  An accompaniment, a complement and a comfort. The music is minimal, played out as solid chords with slight tremolos (is this the right word – a raise/lowering in pitch?), played at a slow – choral or church music pace.  There are plucked strings (perhaps violin, or maybe harp – I am no musso, so could not tell you which) interspersed.  They plink in, perhaps like angels’ harps, playing – the song that is so  certain of Jesus blood (and love) finally hearing the angels calling it home.

Tom Waits’ voice comes in, not the growling street screacher, bathed in whiskey and box cars and fights; but a deep, resonant gravel – a counterpoint to the tramp’s own reedy and weakening voice.

This all leads to a moving crescendo, where the volume is raised. Something like praising the greater glory in our lives (think of Oscar Wilde’s “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, and place this song somewhere around the moon at this point – raised entirely from whatever street-life this voice has been living).  In a religious sense, I suppose this could be seen as the arms of God, cuddling and embracing this lone soul.

In all, it creates (for me, only for me) a sort of British spiritual, along the lines of the old Gospel/Blues spirituals and a profoundly moving piece of simple, minimal, music that can so affect you, it haunts you and moves you to write 700 or so words during your lunch break.

You can buy this album here (Amazon) or go to a local CD shop and get them to order it in for you.

Some things this music reminds me of (links are from Amazon, but please buy in a local, independent bookshop):

Beckett’s The Unnamable (and as I hinted the famous last lines: “Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

The writing of James Kelman, a Scottish minimalist author who writes in a hyper-real mode about people who suffer through unrelenting trials

A beautiful essay by George Orwell, The Spike, about a hostel for tramps, where he stayed (included in his “Down and Out in Paris and London“)