Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet - the story behind the haunting, magical song

Radio documentary shares how this moving recording was made from a fragment of scrapped tape

Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet - Gavin Bryars
Gavin Bryars' haunting recording Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which he re-recorded with Tom Waits, has a fascinating backstory

Never Failed Me Yet - Sunday Feature, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

In 1971, experimental composer Gavin Bryars was living in a house in Kilburn. His friend was making a film about people living rough in London and when he was finished, he gave Gavin his discarded audio tapes.

That was how he chanced upon an anonymous recording of an old man – what people back then might have called ‘a tramp’ – singing Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

It was a fragment – just 26 seconds – but it was beautifully in tune, said Gavin. He found he could make it into a loop and prolong it.

Gavin brought the fragment into the studio to work on it and at one stage, he nipped out for a coffee.

When he came back, everyone in the room nearby had gone very quiet, he could hear this old man’s voice filtering in and realised that they were moved just by his singing.

I came upon Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet courtesy of the late Gerry Anderson on Radio Foyle, who used to play it regularly. It never failed in its power.

Bryars said it reminded him of a hymn... but none that he knew. Perhaps the man half remembered some words and made it up from there.

Producer Alan Hill from Falling Tree productions is behind this beautiful and powerful documentary, skilfully weaving together the story on the backdrop of the haunting song.

The speakers include the composer and both homeless people and those who work with them.

We are taken on a journey from the original vinyl recording on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 through to the Mercury Prize-nominated CD version featuring Tom Waits and on to the adoption of the song by the homeless community.

We heard from homeless people from Streetwise Opera and A Choir with No Name.

Gavin Bryars
Experimental composer Gavin Bryars

People talked about the confidence and faith in the man’s voice, its almost noble quality, that it was an important piece, so ahead of its time.

Waits told Bryars that he had a copy of the vinyl recording and it was his favourite.

And that led to a recording with Waits: “One of the greatest musical days of my life,” said Bryars.

There is something that touches the heart in those two or three sung lines that stay with you long after the song has played out. This documentary is a little piece of magic.