Jeni, my correspondent from Maine USA asked about this record recently and if I’d heard it. I will let a dear departed friend of mine, Almax, tell the story. The following was an article on his blog in July 2010.
I’m just posting this in case there are any of you who have never heard this remarkable record.
About 15 years ago my friend played me a CD by Gavin Bryars with the same title as this posting.
It was a highly unusual disc, featuring numerous treatments of the same ‘song’.
And the ‘song’ actually consisted of a few lines ‘sung’ in a rough and ready way over and over again (by a tramp outside Waterloo Railway Station) , the lines being
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
This one thing I know
For he loves me so
Gavin Bryars explains how this came to be recorded –
In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.
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.
Almax then continues…
I’d really forgotten all about this until Tom Waits was the guest editor in Mojo magazine last month – in the free CD there is a version of the song with Waits singing along in the background (‘harmonising’ with the tramp).
As you know, I am not religious, but if I was then I would consider this as a very powerful piece of religious music. As it is, it would genuinely bring a tear to a glass eye. The few lines sung by the tramp (probably entirely of his own invention and devising) have become something of a classic.
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet