I first heard this haunting small tune over a year ago, but it refuses to leave me alone. The sound of that man’s quavery voice, even with its shades of Spike Milligan, is captivating in its simplicity and purity.
Before I start to discuss it, I feel that you need to hear it, so you know what it is I am so moved by. So here is the shortest version of this little song as used by Gavin Bryars.
Do you see what I mean about the power of this simple bit of music? And yes, it is Tom Waits you hear in this extract from a much longer work.
Here is what the composer Gavin Bryars has to say about the background of his use of this extremely powerful, if simple, song.
- 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 [in the notes for the 1993 recording on Point, Bryars wrote that while the singer’s pitch was quite accurate, his sense of tempo was irregular]. 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 realised 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 homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.
I find that I can very easily understand those individuals who were reduced to tears by the endless repeating of this little song. Its simplicity, and obvious sincerity are really very powerful.
There really isn’t much to be said about this work that it can’t say for itself infinitely better. I love the simple and direct way in which that tramp sang this song. He obviously believed deeply in his god, in spite of what must have been a very difficult life.
Gavin Bryars wrote a number of versions of this piece using this tramp’s song, each of steadily increasing length, the first being 25 minutes long, this being the maximum time on one side of a Long Playing record, as he didn’t want listeners to have to interrupt their listening by having to turn the record over. The second was brought out on a cassette tape, and was 60 minutes long, and the third and last iteration was the CD version, which was 74 minutes long. This last was the version that Tom Waits sang on.
I have listened to a number of versions of this song recorded by other musicians, and I have to agree with one of the commentator to one version of this song, to wit:-
Some songs should be left well alone. This version is so devoid of the emotional content and integrity of the original. The original vocals brought people to tears. And the subsequent Orchestration was profoundly fitting and sensitive to the extreme. This version is like a child’s attempt at writing a symphony by smacking the keyboard repeatedly with its fists. Wish I could Un-hear this!
So, here is the full length version, the one with Tom Waits towards the end. I hope it moves you and brings you to the same peace that I experienced by listening to it. But it does last 74 minutes, so lie back, get the coffee ready and give yourself to this powerful evocation of the human spirit.