HHaving existed in many shapes, sizes and styles for over 50 years, Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is the closest we’ve got in this country to an underground national anthem. It is a work of experimental classical music as accessible as any pop song. Its fans range from followers of religious ecstasy to followers of the other ecstasy. Beautiful, gloomy and mysterious, it’s elegiac with an “Eh? capital letter.
For those who haven’t yet fallen under its spell, the piece revolves around a 26-second loop – an excerpt from a 1971 documentary – of a frail, elderly, homeless man in Elephant and Castle in London, singing lines from a half-remembered hymn: “The blood of Jesus has never failed me yet…one thing I know, for he loves me so much. After a few minutes of this strange solo vocals, Bryars – with incredible concentration and delicacy – introduces a swelling orchestral motif to accompany the fragile voice.
As with other great works of minimalist music, the orchestration changes almost indiscernibly over its indefinite duration. The effect is breathtaking in its beauty but without even a burst of schmaltz. In a loose narrative sense, the frail, abandoned man is given dignity and a sense of camaraderie by the supporting musicians. But that’s it for everyone. The only constant tends to be a lump in the throat.
While the piece is synonymous with repetition, over the years it has also become a quiet triumph of reinvention. Yorkshire-born composer and bassist Bryars, who turns 79 this year, is by no means precious to his crowd-pleaser status. His next performance will be at Sonica, a celebration of visual sound art hosted annually by Cryptic in Glasgow. Bryars will perform Jesus’ Blood accompanied by large-scale digital landscapes by artist and computer engineer Alba G Corral, which will respond to the music in real time.
No two performances are the same. “I reinvent the piece every time I play it,” says Bryars. “For most of his life I was writing parts for the musicians I had available.” This is how Jesus’ Blood was orchestrated for a 32-piece choir in Australia, an ensemble of tuned percussionists in Lyon and even for 30 beginner violinists from a primary school in Dundalk. (“They were more or less in tune,” Bryars recalls with happy pride.) A version with medieval instruments is being worked on for performance this summer.
The unlimited length of the blood of Jesus also means that it has reflected technological changes over the decades. The first live performance in 1972 lasted about 30 minutes, which was the maximum length of reel-to-reel tape available to replay the vocal loop. When it was recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975, it was cut down to 25 minutes, so it could take up one side of the vinyl. A 60-minute version later appeared for cassette, and in 1993 compact discs allowed Bryars to extend it to 74 minutes for a Mercury-nominated version featuring Tom Waits.
The boldest live performance to date was the one that lasted 12 hours – from 8pm to 8am – at the Tate Modern in London in 2019. As with the upcoming performance at Sonica, it took place in an unseated environment and free. Some stayed all night and slept; some were meditating; many cried. The song’s 26-second loop was reportedly replayed 1,656 times during that performance alone. Miraculously, although Bryars estimates he’s heard the chorus in the region a million times, he doesn’t get tired of it. “I discovered that I had no concept of boredom at all. When we did the 12 hour performance, I was afraid it would kill me. But three weeks later we played it again and it was still there. When that voice starts at the beginning, I always get a little tingle.
Fortunately, the public shows no signs of boredom either. The Blood of Jesus is a ritual that many use to test themselves at different times in their lives. Depending on your own relationship to age, life and death, each listening somehow triggers a new reaction. In Bryars’ own experience, these can range widely: from visceral dislike (“I’ve seen people hate it intensely”) to the Canadian couple who had separated while traveling, but returned home to a Jesus’ Blood radio show and decided in the end to get married instead.
Its loop-based nature has always given the piece an association with dance music. It was played on radio stations as disparate as Radio 3 and Rinse FM. Ambient DJ pioneer Mixmaster Morris played it on Sunday mornings at Glastonbury in the 90s, while DJ Man Power once played it at the Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, the hedonistic venue of the Wham’s Club Tropicana video. His first encounter with Bryars’ work is not atypical: “The first time I heard it was after a festival – five young men piled into a Ford Focus at 5 a.m., listening to the version 74 minutes in complete silence.
Yet the play’s deepest association is with homelessness. When Bryars performed his 12-hour marathon, his ensemble was joined by 60 budding musicians who had all had worldly experiences. At St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London, he performs it in an annual act of worship for the capital’s homeless. “There is a moment in the ward,” he says, “where they read the names of all the homeless people who died in London that year. Naming them is very powerful. They are no longer anonymous.
When Jesus’ Blood was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 1993, the Daily Star “decided to do a story about how I exploited the homeless,” he recalled. “They were going to find the man.” They didn’t go far. Bryars had tried and failed 20 years earlier. No video of him existed. No one has even found the finished documentary. The complete anonymity of the singer gives the piece an even deeper sense of tragedy and mystery.
“The cameraman remembers that he was old, unshaven, fragile but happy. What I found in the old man’s voice wasn’t religion – it was humanity. There’s a certain nobility and a certain optimism to that, things that people rarely associate with someone living on the streets. I think that’s what brings people into the room. It’s all in his voice. »
Gavin Bryars conducts a Visual Concert at Tramway, Glasgow, with the RSNO, the 12th of March. Details on sonic-a.co.uk