In 1971 Gavin Bryars was working as a mixer and editor for a film documenting street life in and around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Sifting through all the material that filmmaker Alan Power had recorded for the project, Bryars was struck by a twenty-six-second audio fragment of an elderly homeless man singing a simple song of Christian faith:
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
That’s one thing I know
For he loves me so
The clip didn’t make it into the film, but Power gave Bryars permission to keep it. Unfortunately the singer’s name and likeness were never recorded, and Bryars’s attempts to find him were unsuccessful. And despite scouring various hymnals and archives, neither Bryars nor anyone else has been able to find any other record of the song, which means it very likely could have been written by the man himself.
Inspired by the beauty and sincerity of the man’s song, Bryars ended up using the unwanted audio as the basis of a major orchestral composition. He made a loop of its thirteen bars (which the man sings perfectly in tune) and wrote a simple chordal arrangement, which he then developed into a rich ensemble piece with strings and brass, lasting about thirty minutes. The first three and half minutes feature a playback of the man’s bare vocals, the clip gradually increasing in volume until the strings enter in layers, then the brass, building to a swell that supports (but crucially, does not overwhelm) the voice for the entire duration.
“In a loose narrative sense, the frail, forsaken man is given a dignity and a sense of comradeship from the supporting musicians,” writes British journalist Oliver Keens, who also says that this “work of experimental classical music . . . as accessible as any pop song . . . is the closest we have in [England] to an underground national hymn.”
Music writer and sound artist Marc Weidenbaum says the piece “takes the melody inherent in a creaky recording of a homeless man singing a hymn in a painfully sweet and wavering rendition and renders it in a gentle, sensitive setting that suggests a heavenly chorus if not outright beatification.”
It is meditative; trancelike, even. And it has such emotional power. I cried when I first heard it.
The orchestration honors the anonymous man’s faith and the object of his faith, Jesus Christ—particularly the efficacy of Jesus’s blood, shed for the life of the world. An expression of divine love, that blood flows into every dark corner, bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. The man on the tape clung to its promise. Even though his circumstances might suggest that the blood did fail him, he testifies otherwise: Jesus’s blood has never failed me.
“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was originally released on LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975 (a few minutes had to be shaved off for it to fit on vinyl) and was re-released in 2015. A shortened version was recorded in 2002 on Gavin Bryars: A Portrait, featuring Tom Waits, with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.
Widely performed, the piece exists in many iterations, with different lengths (from four minutes to twelve hours) and instrumentation. Bryars said he reinvents it every time he conducts it, usually writing parts for the musicians he has available.
The song has also been covered by popular Christian artists such as Jars of Clay (2003) and Audrey Assad (2016). Sandra Stephens sings it with a new melody and Latin rhythm on the collaborative album Shades of Blue (1994), interspersed with a monologue by Lanny Cordola that references the song’s source in that unnamed Londoner who graced the world with it.
The video above captures a performance by Psappha, conducted by Clark Rundell, which took place October 12, 2016, at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.
In a Luminous podcast interview with Bryars last year, host Peter Bouteneff, reflecting on how Bryars recovered the old singer’s brief improvised performance from the cutting-room floor, said something that has stayed with me: “It makes you wonder how at any given moment, there’s something passing being said or sung, that if we cared enough to isolate it and love it, it could become exactly as beautiful.”
Recognizing the sublimity of the man’s song, Bryars shone a light on it, developing it into a full-fledged concert piece that doesn’t compete with the original homespun quality, but rather elevates it, broadens it. “Jesus’ Blood” is a merging of “fine” and “folk” cultures that exhibits the unique strengths of both.
It’s a pity that the man has never received named authorship credit—although, as mentioned, due diligence was taken to identify him prior to the song’s going public, and no new leads have emerged since, now surely decades after the man has passed. We don’t know whether the song is one he heard long ago in some church or mission hall, or from a friend, or something he composed himself. Either way, his heartfelt presentation of the song is a gift, and Bryars’s stewardship of that gift and creative engagement with it has extended its reach all over the globe.