June 25, 2020

Grace

This morning I sat in the park across from a woman who was talking to the pigeons gathered around her feet. She complimented their feathers as she tossed them bits of a hamburger bun. “Oh, you’re a beautiful one with little flecks of gold in your wings.” She giggled as they pecked and flapped, and it was a wonderfully roomy kind of laughter. “Don’t be afraid to express yourself,” she told them.

Something about the pitch of her voice, combined with her complete focus on the world she’d invented with these birds, reminded me of a song lyric that never seemed to end. This one thing I know, that he loves me so. I repeated the phrase for a minute until I remembered: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars, a 25-minute song attached to an anecdote with the qualities of myth.

In 1971, Bryars walked through a rough part of London with a tape recorder, taping drunken jive and street preachers. Then he captured the song of an unknown homeless man who would die within the year. Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. Never failed me yet. This one thing I know. Returning to the art department of the university where he worked, Bryars looped the man’s voice on a reel-to-reel player in a classroom. Then he went to get a coffee. “When I came back, I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued,” he said. “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.”

Do I believe in god? I have no idea. But the persistence of this unknown man’s voice makes me think something like grace is possible. I hear it in the childlike wonder combined with elderly poise despite living in dire conditions. It’s built into the lyric itself, the blurred line between suffering and faith. And I think the pigeon lady lives in the same neighborhood: someone finding absolute pleasure and presence in a humble ritual while the world feels like it’s falling apart.


Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

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Each night in 2020 I'm writing a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I want to etch these days into my memory before I forget them. Before the world changes completely.
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