10, 000 Years

In the previous post I talked about Monsoon, a song I wrote some four or five years ago. 10, 000 Years is a much more recent composition, written about three or four months ago. It’s one of a set of five songs I’m currently recording for a new EP of songs here in Borneo.

The tuning used for this song is DGDGBE (taking both of the lowest strings down a step). Whilst composing the song, I was also attempting to transpose some of the music of the master balafon player Aly Keita onto guitar. The balafon is a type of wooden xylophone played in West Africa. I’m utterly obsessed with all kinds of music from across Africa, and I’m always trying to infuse some of the magic that music has into my own songs. I hope some of the gentling swinging rhythm I found in Aly’s balafon playing has made it into the arrangement for 10,000 Years.

The song itself is a reaction in part to the horrific rise of the Islamic State (or Isil, Isis, Daesh, ignorant bunch of barbarians or whatever you want to call them). It’s something that touches me personally because many years ago (before 9/11 and the world deciding Islam and the West had to be mortal enemies) I travelled through Syria.

I’ve been to many countries renowned for being ‘friendly’, but have never experienced hospitality like I did in Syria*. It’s hard to think about what must have become of all the strangers who showed kindness to a young, clueless archaeology student as he blundered across the country.

Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra
Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra

Alongside all the atrocities committed against humanity, Islamic State has also declared war on history in a land where the earliest roots of modern civilization can be found. The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where the states of Syria and Iraq now hurtle towards collapse, claims some of the first settlements known to man. Jericho in the West Bank has been inhabited for 10, 000 years.

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley and the fertile soil to sow

It struck me as a powerful observation on the state of our humanity that such barbarity is taking place over the same stones that marked the beginning of our supposed journey towards ‘civilization’. It doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress. Therein lay the central conceit of the song – we’re still living the same way we always have, just on an ever-increasing scale. Considering technology, culture, population, mankind’s come a mighty long way. But in the simple terms of how we treat one another, we’ve gone nowhere at all.

I'm fourth from the right, fifth row down
I’m fourth from the right, fifth row down

With reference to the situation in Syria, it’s my personal opinion that the West paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State with our reckless and acquisitive invasion of Iraq. I was one of the millions to join the futile march against the war over a decade ago. There’s no pleasure in saying “We told you so” now, but that’s why the imagery of the song’s second verse looks more to our own high-tech war machines over the medieval techniques of the terrorists.

Death still makes his bed

In the cradle of life

Listening to the kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why

Make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

A previous incarnation of the song went into more detail about our complicity in the misery overtaking the Middle East:

This morning I woke up to the radio

And the ravenous reporter

Reading from the book of death

A feast for the beleaguered vultures

Enough bloodshed to leave the commentators short of breath

Well she can’t be blamed for her excitement

Who hasn’t admired a building burning down?

So long as you stand well back

So the silent explosion precedes the sound

Eventually I excised this part as the song developed. Our shared history is not solely death and destruction. Take a look at the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Alongside the artefacts of war and violence, there’re plenty of objects that exemplify our capacity to love one another. As I talked about when discussing the composition of Monsoon, I wanted to offer something to balance the darker reflections that had inspired 10,000 Years.

Some communication can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10,000 Years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 Years

I don’t think this part of the song is as strong; but then it’s always easier writing about doom and gloom than flowers and puppies!

As perhaps can be told from the earlier part of the song I chose to leave out, 10, 000 Years wasn’t written to any clear structure. I don’t think many songs are – invariably an idea generates a flood of imagery and fractured stanzas, which are then shaped into some semblance of order. With this song I wanted to ensure I broke out of following any subconscious habits when it came to the song’s structure and rhyming pattern, so I grabbed a random song on a completely different topic and began to ‘overwrite’ the lyrics with those of 10,000 Years.

Using other songs as foils for your own songwriting is a common device – a technique you’ll often see suggested if you investigate songwriting approaches online. You can approach them in different ways – as well as doing what I did with 10,000 Years you might also write an extra verse for an existing song, then use your verse as the basis of a new, original work. I’d argue it’s a perfectly legitimate approach – it’s something that’s happened again and again within the folk song tradition. For example, Bob Dylan’s earliest (and most recent) songs are often reworkings of existing folk songs**.

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Igor Stravinsky (and some other people)

Of course, a bit of caution is needed when using this approach – finding inspiration without baldly ripping someone off. In the case of 10,000 Years, the mistake I made was using the other song to arrange my words before I had a clear idea of the guitar accompaniment and melody. When I started honing these, I found my song kept drifting back towards the other song in sound, even though I was using completely different chords. Normally when I’m composing a melody I just follow my instinct. Frustratingly in this case I had to forcibly guide my instinct around the trap I’d set myself of mimicking the other song.

I believe that in the end I succeeded, but you’ll note I haven’t mentioned what that other song was. If you think you have an idea, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comment box, but I’m hoping you’ll be wrong and that I can say 10,000 Years is mine alone.

The full lyrics are presented below. I got the last chorus wrong in the live session posted above!

VERSE 1

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley, and the fertile soil to sow

Beneath the loam, the sheltering stone, let the sweet-water rise

Through our toes, up our bones, then to trickle back out of our eyes

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to say ‘I love you’, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us tight

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

But for all the ills, one thing remains

10, 000

In a cave painting make your sign

A celebration that my heart is thine

And thus the barbarian is tamed

10, 000, 10, 000, 10, 000 years

VERSE 2

Now Death still makes his bed, in the cradle of life

Listening to kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why, make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to kill your neighbour, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us apart

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

Centuries ‘til the armistice is claimed

10,000 years

Gild your words, make ‘em shine

Decide yourself what they define

When tomorrow comes we won’t speak the same

10,000 years

The message, it can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10, 000 years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 years

*One caveat that should be mentioned – I was accompanied by some young blonde ladies, who may have had some influence to the eager hospitality displayed by many a Syrian gentleman.

** Did I say Dylan again?

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10, 000 Years

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