The True Story Behind One of the Strangest and Most Beautiful Hymns I’ve Ever Heard

BY Matthew Archbold

Composer Gavin Bryars was living in London working on a documentary about
people living in poverty. During the recording, a number of people being
interviewed broke into drunken maudlin ballads and even loud opera. But one
old man, who, according to Bryars, was not drinking, sang a small verse of a
religious song called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

He sang it without irony. He sang it seemingly in childlike faith despite
his dire circumstances.

The recording of the old man was never used in the film and it was returned
to Bryars. When Bryars listened to it at home he found something beautiful
in the old man’s singing. He improvised a simple accompaniment to the verse
that built around the man’s singing. Shortly after that he took the tape to
the recording studio where he worked. He copied the loop of song onto a
continuous reel. Knowing this would take time he left the studio with the
song playing to grab a cup of coffee.

Out into the studio floated the old man’s words, haunting
and faith-filled:

Jesus blood never failed me yet-

never failed me yet

Jesus blood never failed me yet –

there’s one thing I know

because he loves me so

Jesus blood never failed me yet –

When Bryars returned he noticed something odd. “When I came back I found
the normally lively room unnaturally subdued,” said Bryars. “People were
moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone,
quietly weeping.”

He didn’t understand why until he realized the tape had been playing the
entire time he’d been gone and was causing a strong reaction in people.
“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,” he said.

Bryars added a swelling orchestral accompaniment around the man’s voice and
recorded it on Brian Eno’s label in 1975. Since then, the song has moved
millions. Including me.

I can tell you that the first time I heard it I was picking up my brother
Kevin from the train station. Going through chemo at the time and suffering
seizures at odd times he wasn’t able to drive so the family would drive him
in to work or the train on a daily basis. As I lived in Philadelphia and
only came up during the summers, I was glad to help when I could.

So there I was waiting for him and flipping through radio stations when I
heard this old man’s warbling voice. In the beginning I couldn’t even
understand what he was saying but it soon had me transfixed. My brother came
off the train and climbed in the car. Normally, he launched right in with
jokes but he heard the song. We both sat in the car for twenty minutes
listening. We didn’t talk. We didn’t drive. We just listened. We shared that
moment.

So now I share it with you.

A sad note, the tramp (as he came to be known) died before he could hear
what Bryars had done with his singing. I find it beautiful as millions of
others have. I’ll let you decide.

The first three minutes are completely without music and then the
orchestration slowly builds around it.

Read here