Threads, pathways, side routes and diversions. That’s what music does for me … sends me to unexpected places.
A few years ago I was given the book ‘1001 Songs You Should Hear Before You Die’ and being a collector I checked to see which I did and didn’t have. You can see the full list here.
No 407 was called Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet by the English minimalist composer Gavin Bryars.
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 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.
It’s one of the most relaxing and yet uplifting and moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
The balance of the show is made up of five other minimalist pieces, some up tempo, some complex, some simple, all accessible to open minded prog listeners.
- MICHAEL NYMAN Bird List Song
from Michael Nyman (1981) YouTube clip with lyrics
- MARK ISHAM Sympathy and Acknowledgement
from Vapor Drawings (1983)
- PHILIP GLASS Facades
from Glassworks (1982)
- HAROLD BUDD Juno
from The Pavilion of Dreams (1978)
- PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and it Doesn’t Matter
from Music From The Penguin Café (1976)
- GAVIN BRYARS Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
from The Sinking of the Titanic (1975)
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