Sometimes it’s the instrument itself that can spark a song. I had bought a hundred-year-old Mexican folk guitar – El Kabong, as it became known – which I used to get just the right sound on “Serenity” (see my entry for that song). This tune came out solely because I was picking around on the guitar and found a nice pattern that sounded great with its unique tones. Nothing special about the progression, a simple A-minor into C, down to G and back to A-minor, but the sound of clean picking and swept arpeggios on those tuned-down aging steel strings definitely stood out to me. I worked out a couple of variations and between them had virtually everything the song was going to end up needing.
Those two sections added up to a decent verse, and repeating them three times basically made up a song, if a little short on variety. When I had that main part down on tape (well, not really tape, but you know), I played along with El Kabong and came up with an even simpler counterpoint, a two-note picked pattern following the chords but offsetting the main guitar phrases. Honestly, I really like the sound this guitar has especially when you put those two parts together, bouncing off each other, so comfortingly repetitive, almost hypnotic.
I’m not sure what sparked the first lines, “All that passes / Is not unmade,” but I sang into the spaces around the picking and those words popped out. We can speculate that George Harrison’s epic breakout solo album, All Things Must Pass had an influence, though I never consciously thought of it. The words that followed came fairly quickly and all sink right into the song’s reflective feel – it’s another repetitive piece where the variation comes in more subtle forms. That first verse culminated in the lines that would form a refrain (closest thing to a chorus, of which there really isn’t one), “Long ago / Right up till today / More than you know / The way has been paved.”
The rest of the song fell into place around this concept. The core truth I was exploring is that we live at the apex of human history, and everything around us, everything that makes up our modern life is the cumulative result of many many people blazing trails long ago, paving the way for what we have now. People often forget just how much they owe to their ancestors, to everyone who came before: not just the roads and infrastructure and inventions, but the very thoughts, ideas, and language we take for granted were painfully built up at great cost over huge stretches of time.
This idea leads to a certain humility and gratitude for pioneers past, but also can be a comfort or reminder that older generations live on, nothing is ever completely “unmade,” but extends out through time like a ripple through water. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The still life shots of all my mementoes and photographs bring this concept to the fore, and help keep the past in front of me as I go through life. Where would I be without these immediate ancestors whose continuing story set the stage for, if not led me to where I am now? My grandmother left Yorkshire and my grandfather left the US to move to western Canada; he fought in a war that changed the world; they pioneered a land that provided for my family, who provided for me, so fortunate to be born into a plentiful and nurturing environment. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants.