on April 6, 1999
My introduction to this CD came during a discussion with a friend of mine who wanted to underscore a point that "people will put out anything on CD". He reminded me that this CD was proof that there was "a sucker born every minute". His "evidence" to demonstrate how low music had gone was Gavin Bryars "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet".
As he put it on the CD player, I realized that I was already vaguely aware of this recording, having heard a brief feature on National Public Radio, several weeks prior.
He plunked quickly through the CDs segments (all of which featured this looped audio passage of a hobo singing this four or five line chorus, backed by subtle varitions of orchestral accompaniment) to demonstrate his "point".
To his amazement, I asked to borrow this CD. Once I got home, I couldn't quit playing it. It worked in much the same way as Brian Eno's Ambient Music For Airports. This was music that worked at different volumes, but seemed to work best when played at a relatively low volume. The effect seemed to "tune" and "cleanse" the atmosphere.
I found that there were times when I would be in tears, touched by deep emotions, while the piece was playing.
On several occasions, I played this CD for friends and watched them overcome with emotion.
This is a powerful CD for anyone with the patience to let the music wash over them and carry them to those places where the deepest emotions and symbols reside.
Gavin Bryars' "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet" is fearless music and easily one of the most magical CDs in my library of over 30,000 albums and CDS.
Needless to say, my friend is still incredulous that I would even admit to liking this CD. All I can say is you'll either love it or you won't get it.
on November 29, 2002
I took a chance on Gavin Bryars a couple of years back when I purchased a copy of his "The Sinking of the Titanic" and was pleasantly surprised at just how satisfying his minimalist approach to composition could be. Then recently,while scanning the Tom Waits section of an on line catalog, I came across an entry for "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" and was immediately intrigued. I read the reviews and found the descriptions of what Bryars had done with a continuous loop of a little snippet of a lone voice singing a religious song. I became even more interested. Added to that was the fact that Tom Waits,one of my favorite people,was a part of this production and it wasn't long before I put in an order for a copy of this musical piece.
As the five stars would indicate I was not disappointed. At once I was captivated by the beauty of the heart felt and simple song that The Tramp was singing. It spoke volumes on the faith and comfort that this individual took in his relationship with Jesus. Whether onr shares his faith or not you could not help but be touched by the tranquility and hope that came through in his voice.
Now, how to keep this feeling fresh and alive for 74 minutes?
Bryars achieves this admirably with the simple and elegant accompaniment supplied by an orchestra that is coupled in various movements by a string quartet, low strings, full strings and finally culminating with Tom Waits joining The Tramp on vocals,with full orchestra, in the 5th movement.
It is topped off with a coda featuring Tom Waits on vocals with high strings.
By the time the piece was finished I felt thoroughly at peace. This piece is not something you could listen to without fully devoting yourself to the time it takes but it is well worth the time. Enter this musical landscape with an open mind and an open heart.
In the year following September 11th, one of the places one could turn for solace or to vicariously express grieving, or even rage, was to music. You rarely hear people speak so openly and so often about the therapeutic value of music as you have in recent months. The release of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising was greeted not just as a musical event but as a potential moment of catharsis for the whole country. One of our favorite musicians would sum everything up for us in one definitive album. This was of course asking far too much and while Mr. Springsteen's disk is quite good it has hardly obviated our need for other music, nor will any other single album nor any other artist. But I wonder if maybe The Rising did come right around the time that we're, many of us, ready to move on. Not move on and forget, but move on to the next phase in our national life. I wonder in particular if other folks, as I do, feel the need to listen to songs of affirmation now, rather than of decimation.
If you do feel such a need and you've a sense of adventure, you might enjoy Gavin Bryars' unique Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Be warned though, don't go running out to buy it. Listen to some samples first and let me try to explain what you're going to hear.
In 1971, Mr. Bryars, who is one of England's best regarded minimalist composers, was helping with the audio on a friend's movie. He found a bit of tape that featured a an old man singing a short religious verse:
Jesus' blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus' blood never failed me yet
There's one thing I know
For he loves me so ...
He took this bit of found sound and while the old man, or tramp as he's referred to herein, sang it over and over, Mr. Bryars gradually added accompanists, so that continuous loop of the the lonely ditty was eventually joined by a string section or an entire orchestra or whatever he had on hand. The composer used variations on this theme that apparently became legendary for their effect on listeners and one earlier version was the first release on Brian Eno's Obscure Records label. For this new definitive (perhaps?) version Mr. Bryars added a part specifically for Tom Waits who had written expressing his admiration for an earlier version. The liner notes describe the sections of the work as follows:
1. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra I]
2. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Tramp With Orchestra II]
3. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra III]
4. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp With Orchestra IV]
5. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Tramp and Tom Waits With Full Orchestra]
6. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Coda: Tom Waits With High Strings]
It fades in from silence onto the tramp singing by himself. He's gradually joined by strings, then by a full orchestra, then by Mr. Waits, then the orchestra and the tramp fade away until it's just Tom Waits with strings and then by himself and back to silence. It lasts for seventy-four minutes with that one unchanging verse being sung the whole time.
Sounds annoying, huh? You'd think it would be, but instead it's mesmeric and uplifting. Sounds like it must be ironic or even sarcastic, eh? But it's not. Although Mr. Byars does not share the stubborn sentiment of the old man's song, he quickly understood that any piece he composed around it had to "respect the tramp's humanity and simple faith". He succeeded brilliantly and his composition is a compelling affirmation that takes on something of the quality of a chant, working on an almost subliminal or subconscious level. It has an anodyne effect, leaving the listener cleansed, healed and profoundly moved. Or, at least it does me. But, as I said, it's a very unusual piece of music, so try to give it a listen before you take my word for it.
on September 14, 1998
...the first time I heard Gavin Bryars' unforgettable composition "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet." I was working at the front counter of a tiny Manhattan bookstore, on a lovely autumn Saturday afternoon in 1984. I had the stereo out back tuned low to WNYC-FM's "New Sounds" program. What might have been merely pleasant background wash that afternoon soon became something else entirely. Something so simple - an old tramp in London singing, in a heartfelt, plaintive voice almost childlike in its innocence, a stanza from an old English hymn - became, when repeated times without number, each repetition changed subtly by the addition of a new chamber instrument in the background, a small musical miracle, hypnotic, insistent, and above all stirring - a revelation. I raced back to the stereo about halfway through the piece to turn up the volume, and awaited host John Schaefer's follow-up commentary and the source of this fugitive bit of musical transcendence. The record had been released originally in the mid-1970s on Brian Eno's Obscure Records label - and had fallen out of print. I called Mr. Schaefer at WNYC weeks later, and learned from him that my reaction was common to those who had heard "Jesus' Blood" played on his show. And the Manhattan record dealer I then phoned after a referral from Mr. Schaefer simply informed me abruptly that the recording had been out of stock indefinitely - "we get this call all the time." I relied for years on a cheap cassette taped under poor reception off my boombox - the crackle and fade during numerous passages only added to the feeling I had of being among the Remnant, preserving fading embers amid ruin. But thanks to the relentless boutiquing of practically all our cultural memories, which in the age of the internet has proceeded exponentially, the recording was reissued on CD in late 1993, when we learned also that singer Tom Waits had long been among this work's most devoted fans. His own robust, gravelly baritone closes the new recording, a tribute which fits and enhances the material preceding. That wistful old man, singing by himself in the street, could have had no idea of the effect he would come to have upon Bryars and his listeners over the next two decades - and beyond. Some people first remember hearing "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" while in their cars - before pulling off to the shoulder, overcome by tears. Whatever your own eventual memories, you'll soon understand why. And pass it along to your friends years from now.
on October 1, 1999
At long last I've found it. This is the tune which has haunted my memories ever since one evening, in the 1980's roughly, listening to late night public radio. I have never forgotten that tune. Now, by accident on Amazon.com, I stumbled across this same music. It has been well over a decade since I heard this piece - and only ONCE. It is an amazing piece of art, frightfully simple yet the emotions it will produce in YOU, the listener shall be long remembered. Thank you, Amazon.com, for allowing me to stumble across this long lost friend of a recording!
on February 9, 2003
I know this will start to sound like an urban legend, but my story is just the same as that of so many other reviewers: heard this incredible piece on the radio one afternoon while I was working in my kitchen, was trasfixed, even cried a bit, and eagerly waited for the announcer to say what it was.
This music haunted me ever since, and even if my memory is not very trustable I never forgot title and composer: so when I had to buy a birthday present for my brother, I knew what to get.
You can like this music or not: I never would say that you are dumb if you don't get it, but believe me, this music has nothing to do with "being a Christian, crying at Princess Di's funeral, or watching Bambi", as thesceptic from Vancouver claims.
In fact, I am a more ironical than sentimental person, and I am normally a bit ashamed to show my emotions too much.
So it is an effort for me to listen to this, because it stirrs up emotions you are not always ready to face.
But you will not regret this experience. Get this CD.
on December 19, 2001
This work represents the epitome of so much of what distinguishes contemporary music. First of all, it will immediately alienate and anger many who are not open to new music, new sound, or new ideas in the music. This work could probably elicit just as much anxiety and hostility as works such as Xenakis' "Kraanerg"--perhaps more. To the degree that such sonically bombastic works are aesthetically if not aurally challenging, the plaintive quietude and subtlety of "Jesus' Blood..." similarly may be quite perplexing. In the same way that the terrifying harmonic density and apparent dissonance would challenge a non-enthusiast, the relentless calm and melancholy of "Jesus' Blood.." could render a state of aesthetic impasse, like a zen koan. Second, the piece absolutely needs to be listened to in its entirety--the longer you listen, the more challenging it becomes, the more of it you need to hear until, finally, it ends and one is left by its imprint. Others have articulated their response to this emotionally evocative work--it is an experience to be shared with others as well as assimilated by oneself alone. Minimalistic and narrative, ambient and lyrical, earthy and universally transcendent, frivolous and sublime; all seemingly contradictory qualities, but I find all of these here. This paradoxical work reconciles these elements like a mantric exercise. I almost think that almost anyone who would outwardly not like, understand, or even question such a work would be instantly converted if they were to listen to the entire piece at once. The whole of its sort of musical and verbal epistrophic structure relentlessly evokes our emotions, while at the same time providing safe refuge with its element of sheer present-moment pathos. Its simple poetic beauty is an instructive exercise in self-reflective containment leading us toward contemplative transcendence. This is a profound work and one of the very most memorable pieces I've heard.
on March 30, 2006
The controvery rages. Is it rubbish or a work of genius?
When I first heard the original on Sinking Of The Titanic, I thought it was really irritating, and I couldn't get the tune out of my head for days. I put the cd away for a few weeks......and then something made me pull it out and listen again. Still irritating.....but there was something about it that made me want to come back and give it another go. The third time around, I *really* started to listen -- and I was hooked. The gradual background (at first) orchestration grows into something fascinating and wonderful, and you just *have* to listen.
Forget about the religious aspect. It's doesn't detract from the music, and I don't think Bryars meant for this to be a religious work anyway. It's an extremely moving piece, simple, rich, and gloriously done. And probably unlike anything else you've ever heard.
Listening to a short clip won't do you any good, but the cd sells cheap enough to take a chance on for a complete listen. But be forewarned: even one complete listen ain't gonna do it. You'll have to stay with this one for a few more turns to appreciate it. You'll want to use the cd for an air catcher on your wind chimes at first, but hang in there, and you'll be richly rewarded.
on February 29, 2004
I was driving in to work to be dismissed. Tired and full of misgivings, I barely heard the faint,but clear old cockney voice at first, as it washed over me. This anonymous gentleman, might not have the range or elocution of Marion Anderson, but he's dead even with her in compassion. His simple hymn is the work of an integrated society,the land which produced William Blake and David Lean. Mr Wait's genius probably kicked in after hearing the first few bars.
Decades old memories of a small church and its calm, insightful pastor seized me. I haven't been the same since hearing it.
on October 8, 1998
You'll either run screaming from the room or be paralyzed with emotion. I fall in the latter category. Not recommended for people with short attention spans, this recording expands a little too much on the more powerful original version, tripling the length. I don't agree with those who feel Tom Waits adds to the piece; I prefer letting the anonymous singer get the last word. Still, as many have said, the melody is unforgettable, the singer's voice brimming with devotion and the chamber strings section lush and eloquent, a happy medium between the spare opening and overdone conclusion.