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Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

This is one of my beloved songs. I first heard it in college thanks to a thoughtful English Literature prof. The juxtaposition of the hopeful words and the state of the singer moves me. . .to think past moments of salvation. While Jesus, by definition, cannot fail, his life force can only be represented in always flawed reality, especially humanity. Sometimes I remember that the homeless person singing this truth has been failed, not by the blood, but by the content.

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a piece of music composed by Gavin Bryars in 1971. It is based around a recorded loop of an unnamed tramp improvising a hymn; eventually rich harmonies are played by a live ensemble of strings and brass, always increasing in density. The recording was originally made for a 1960s documentary by Alan Power which chronicled street life in London. Later when listening to the recordings, Bryars noticed that the clip was very in tune, and that it looped well into 13 bars. The tramp died before being able to hear the completed piece.

For the first recording as an LP, Bryars was limited to a duration 25 minutes for the piece; upon the invention of cassette tape technology, Bryars made a 60 minute version of the piece, and for CD, a 74 minute version.

The studio in which Bryars made the piece was next to a busy art studio. When constructing the piece, Bryars unintentionally left the loop playing and his door open during a lunch break; when he returned, the usually lively studio was quiet, and some people were crying.

A new recording of this work was made in the 1990s with Tom Waits singing along with the original recording of the tramp during the final section.

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