“… Christians believe that composers can make music out of noise because they have heard something healing in the origin of sound. A moving musical rendition of this theological conviction can be heard in Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me, one of the most remarkable pieces of music of the twentieth century. In 1971 Bryars stumbled upon a bit of audiotape of an old man singing a short verse: ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know for he loves me so.’ Bryars never knew the tramp (as he is called in the liner notes), who died before Bryars decided to pay a musical tribute to his heartfelt tune. The result is a string quartet composition that accompanies the tramp’s song—which is continually repeated throughout the piece—with a gentle reverence and empathy, as if Bryars is afraid to drown out the tramp’s gentle but broken voice.
“First we hear the tramp’s voice alone, then low strings and full strings, reminding us that even the loneliest voice is never without an echo. Theologically construed, the strings sound like the angelic hosts that Jesus could have called upon to save himself from his anguished death on the cross. Finally, almost miraculously, we hear Tom Waits’ gravelly voice. At first Waits sings softly, just below the tramp’s range, and then Waits’s voice becomes stronger, as if he has surreptitiously stepped beside the homeless man in order to accompany him home. Then there is a remarkable musical transformation. Waits’s voice gently rises, as if he is now carrying the tramp on his own musical shoulders. What is nearly impossible to do in life—that is, to aid someone without appearing condescending or patronizing—is accomplished here with a grace that can be only musically expressed. Waits subsumes without replacing the tramp’s tune, carrying it to new heights without leaving the tramp behind. Waits is the Son carrying the tramp with his voice, showing us how Christ can take our tuneless songs and make them sublime, or Waits is the Father harmonizing with the cries of the tramp/Son at the moment of greatest sorrow.”