Earworms are curious creatures. They arrive unannounced and bury into the soil of your brain, sometimes dormant for months – or years – only to emerge without warning, wriggling their melodies. These replays can happen at the most inconvenient times: when we’re trying to concentrate on work, to remember something, or during a serious moment of reflection.
The process is beautifully depicted in Disney’s 2015 film Inside Out, where the musical snippet from a chewing gum commercial is preserved among the memory balls. “Sometimes we send that up to headquarters for no reason and it plays in Riley’s head all day,” laughs one of the engineers as he adds the memory to the chute, much to the annoyance of the protagonist’s emotions.
We have no control over these sub-conscious dwellers, they lie dormant, ready to swell ranks with new comrades.
Among my earworms – including that fictional TripleDent gum jingle – is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the 1971 piece by Gavin Bryars that loops a recording of an anonymous homeless man singing a half-remembered old gospel hymn. For an hour or longer (depending on which version you listen to), the words “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,” repeat seemingly in perpetuity.
Without warning, the musical memory is sent up to my own headquarters, and I’ll find myself singing the phrase – mostly in my head, but sometimes out loud – for days. It can be quite alarming to hear a dedicated atheist suddenly espouse the crucifixion.
The recording was captured during research for a documentary about homelessness in London. Bryars saw potential in the 13-bar sample, using it as the solo line and embellishing the texture with strings (and in some versions, brass and electronics).