On occasion, I’ll use this blog to highlight a piece of music I like.

In the 1960s, director Alan Power and classical composer Gavin Bryars were shooting footage for a documentary about street life in London. Often, drunks would burst into clumsy, improvised ballads. One tramp improvised a hymn:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
This one thing I know, for he loves me so

Bryars took this recording home and noticed it was remarkably in tune and had a unique rhythm that looped nicely. He began writing a lush string accompaniment for the tramp’s looped hymn. The rich harmonies start off sparse and grow in density for half an hour.

The tramp’s voice evokes both the suffering of a long life on the street and an unabated, tender trust in the love of Jesus. In fact, Bryars once left the loop playing and the door open during his lunch break. When he came back, a group of people from the nearby art studio had gathered in the room to listen, some of them crying.

You can hear clips from the piece on the Amazon page. In the 1990s, a version of the work featuring Tom Waits singing along with the tramp was recorded. CCM group Jars of Clay recorded a short version for their 2003 album Who We Are Instead. But nothing approaches the poignancy of the original.

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