Music To Sweep To 13: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

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Music To Sweep To is a (sorta) weekly blog feature about music that is good to listen to while working. You can read previous entries here. If you have any ideas or complaints, you can email them to alexgordon@pghcitypaper.com
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Everybody remembers the classic Billy Zane film Titanic about the big boat that sank. Kathy Bates was in it; Celine Dion sang a song about it; it made $2 billion; it was a whole thing.

I saw it when I was 10 with my friend Jon and his dad at the Movieland cinema in Yonkers, N.Y. (now the Alamo Drafthouse, which is way cooler). I loved it, despite the whole iceberg thing.

I didn’t mind Jack dying (or the 1,500 other folks), but as a budding musician, I was deeply troubled by the string players who went down with the ship. What if I grew up to be a cruise-ship violinist? Would I keep playing? Didn’t they know that cellos are buoyant?

At first, I comforted myself with the notion that this was probably an embellishment on part of the filmmakers, but I found out later that it’s actually true. Eight musicians — Theodore Brailey, Roger Bricoux, John Clarke, Wallace Hartley, John Hume, Georges Krins, Percy Taylor, John Woodward — continued to perform as the ship went down, in an effort to calm the passengers. They died.

The surviving wireless operator (I don’t know what that means) Harold Bride told the New York Times in 1912: "... the band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing 'Autumn' then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic on her nose, with her after-quartet sticking straight up in the air, began to settle — slowly.... the way the band kept playing was a noble thing..... and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing 'Autumn.' How they ever did it I cannot imagine."

That makes two of us, Harold. Or three, if you count the British composer Gavin Bryars.

In 1969, Bryars composed “The Sinking of the Titanic,” a 24-minute string arrangement based on “Autumn.” As the song plays, the sound becomes increasingly muffled and echoey, sort of like it’s emitting from a speaker sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Recordings of interviews withTitanic survivors drift in and out of the mix, more or less incoherently. OK, that’s not too subtle in terms of conceptual metaphors, but the outcome is really beautiful, similar to the titular disintegrating in William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. It’s hypnotic, pretty and unsettling.

Finding “The Sinking of the Titanic” was a big day for me, in terms of my search for good sweeping music. I discovered it by accident. As any MTST fans (a.k.a. my Broomheads!) already know, I’m a big Aphex Twin fan. In 2003, he released an album of remixes called 26 Mixes For Cash, featuring samples from Philip Glass, Jesus Jones, Seefeel, and not least, this astounding piece of music from Nobukazu Takemura:


“The Sinking of the Titanic” in Aphex Twin’s hands became “Raising the Titanic.” It’s a very cool conceptual remix, pitting the reverb-washed original strings against baldly synthetic string instruments, and wrapping the whole thing in big, bold drums. Its full name is actually “Raising the Titanic (Big Drum Mix by Aphex Twin).”


Anyway, this led me to check out Bryars’ original, which led me to another song of his called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” This one is built on a looped sample of a homeless man singing the title line. Here’s how Bryars explains it:

“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 listened to this song in 2014, and I swear to sandwiches, it has been playing in my head every day since. It’s a benevolent earworm, if that’s a thing. It’s such an emotive vocal performance, and the strings Bryars added are so shamelessly manipulative, like putting a Santa hat on a sleepy puppy to sell wrapping paper. It’s treacly and overly romantic, but oddly, I really like it anyway. So that's what we're sweeping to today. Thanks for reading.

Best if you work in: recovering lost jewelry, painting nudes, iceberg avoidance



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