Friday, December 14, 2007

An Advent Story

This story begins many years ago, when I was packing up my things to move and listening to the radio. There was a story about a recently re-released recording, a symphony of sorts, composed around the looping of a tape of an old man singing a hymn. Over and over, the old man sang the hymn, and little by little strings were added on top of his singing, and then a full orchestra.

At some point, I stopped packing and just listened. It was such a compelling, beautiful piece, and I'd never heard anything like it. I wrote down the title and tucked it away somewhere where I wouldn't lose it. This was in the early '90s, in the days before or I-Tunes, but I thought maybe after I moved I could go to a record store and see if I could find a copy or order one.

Of course, I never did find where I put the piece of paper with the title on it, and I couldn't remember exactly what the title was. Eventually I forgot about it. And then, some years later, I heard the recording on the radio again. Did I write down the title then? I don't think I did--I must have thought that this time I would remember.

But later, when I thought how much I'd like to listen to that music again, memory failed. I'd do occasional Google searches, seeing if I could hit on the phrase that would help Google work its magic--"old man singing blood of the lamb hymn"--to no avail.

And then yesterday, a day that found me feeling vaguely despondent, feeling God was far away and not accessible through the usual available channels--through church, through books, through other people--I was catching up on one of my favorite blogs, Don't Eat Alone: Thoughts on Food, Faith, Family and Friends, and I found this:

Since I worked brunch today, Ginger and I both got to be home together tonight, each at our respective MacBooks writing away. I plugged the speakers into mine and turned on Gavin Bryars’ recording, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which is a classical piece built around the singing of a London street person. Here is Bryars’ description:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. 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.

And, of course, that was it. Finally, finally the song had come back to me! I always knew I'd find it again. Oh, it felt like a gift. I downloaded it from I-Tunes and have been listening to it ever since.

Here's what I wrote in my journal yesterday afternoon while listening:

Sometimes I try to think my way into faith and faith eludes me.

The last week or so I have felt stressed and not connected to the Advent stories I've tried to read. I've gone to Morning Prayer and for the most part not felt prayerful or moved. Do I even believe? I want to believe and I wish I did and most times I do and sometimes I don't.

There is something about this song, how it starts with one human voice, one voice looping over and over for almost five minutes:

Jesus' blood has never failed me yet,
never failed me yet,
never failed me yet,
Jesus' blood has never failed me yet
It's one thing I know
For he loves me so

The loop slowing, speeding up, and then overlaid lightly with strings, harps, building into a full orchestra, another voice, the raw, broken voice of Tom Waits, and the beauty of it, which is beyond what I can say, other than it makes me hopeful that there is a God too big for words to contain.


Our Red House said...

What a beautiful story. I wish I could hear the whole piece.


crafty fox said...

I'm so amazed reading this because I bought this cd over 10 years ago when I first heard it! Being not quite 20 my friends all made fun of course, then being impressionable it didn't sound the same so I sold it at the second hand store.
I do remember it being very moving however and it started my appreciation for Tom Waits so all was not lost.


Left-Handed Housewife said...

Kate--You can hear it on You Tube, actually--someone has put together a montage/collage of images to go with the music. I'll see if I can put up a direct link.

crafty fox--I'd forgotten that Tom Waits was on the recording until I downloaded it this go-round. I love Tom Waits, and I think his performance here is just wonderful.
You should listen to it again!