October 2020


Soul music: Kev Carmody

By Paul Kelly
Soul music: Kev Carmody

© Joseph Mayers

The life of a great Australian songwriter

“I’ve been moved by the wind upon the waters
And the shadows as the leaves are blown”
— Kev Carmody

Poet and songwriter Kev Carmody and I have been friends for more than 30 years. We’ve written songs together and meet up from time to time, but due to geography – he lives in country Queensland, I in Melbourne – much of our friendship is conducted over the phone. Every couple of months one of us calls the other. The start of our conversation is ritual.

“Hello, it’s Kev from Queensland here,” he says.

“Hello, it’s Paul from Melbourne, here,” I reply.

Then, like the two men in Les Murray’s poem “The Mitchells”, we talk about the weather. This isn’t small talk for Kev. This is the heart of the matter, an abiding awareness of our small human scale among the vast mystery and chaos of nature. He’ll talk of rain – if it’s coming, if it’s been, if it was enough; of the level of the creek just down from the house; of the state of the veggie garden and what he and his partner, Beryl, are cropping to eat at the moment; of the state of the moon; of what birds have been visiting and what trees and plants and bushes are flowering. Last time we spoke, a month ago, the black wattle and lemon-scented ti-tree were out and there was a haze in the sky caused by dust coming “all the way from the Simpson Desert”. Earlier this year, when we spoke, the haze was from bushfires that forced them to evacuate for the third time in as many years.

I first met Kev in the late 1980s at a Rock for Land Rights concert in Sydney. His first record, Pillars of Society, had just come out, and he sang a song called “Thou Shalt Not Steal”, which begins with the lines:

In 1788 down Sydney Cove
The first boat-people land
Said, sorry boys, our gain’s your loss
We gonna steal your land

His guitar playing swung from driving percussive rhythm to intricate folk-blues picking as he howled, curled and hurled his words into the air. He looked like he was carved out of rock, with a thick unruly head of hair only partly tamed by a red, black and gold headband. A bull of a man. A man who meant business. I was transfixed.

We became friends and I soon found out he had a whole swag of songs – stories of droving families, miners, drifters, police raids, warriors, junkies and brothel madams. Stinging polemics that testified to the ongoing trauma of dispossession. And hymns, paeans of praise to the land, the natural world and its wonders. One song, “Cannot Buy My Soul”, was politics and prayer combined. Another, “Eulogy (for a Black Person)”, was his will in musical form. The whole was stitched together with rich, poetic language:

Make no monuments or mortal crowns
or speak my name again when you lay me down

The songs didn’t come out of nowhere. Kev was born in Cairns in 1946, his dad a second-generation Irish Australian, his mother a Bunjalung Lama Lama woman, with connections to Cape York and the northern New South Wales coastal region. His dad did rural work, which included droving cattle, and as a child Kev spent a lot of time in mustering camps throughout the Darling Downs and beyond. He slept in a swag, looking up in reverie at stars that went forever. As Kev tells it, “The night sky was like a huge blackboard. Every constellation had a story.”

His imagination was also fuelled by the family’s old dry-cell battery wireless with mid and shortwave capacity and an antenna, run up high on a tree wherever possible, which could tune into radio stations all the way to the northern hemisphere. He heard dramas, orchestras, country music, the likes of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Beethoven and Mozart, Hank Williams and Slim Dusty.

At the age of 10, he was sent to boarding school in Toowoomba, with his brother. After school he worked as a welder and labourer. Played rugby union on the weekends and was picked to play for the Queensland Country team. Around that time, he found a guitar chord book in a rubbish dump – “our supermarkets” – and taught himself to play. He found his way to university as a mature-age student and used his songs, some of them rewrites of colonial folk songs, as oral history.

By the time we met, though he’d only released one album, Kev was over 40 years old and a fully fledged singer-songwriter. Before the release of Pillars of Society, his songs had been circulating for years on community radio stations around the country, based on live recordings at 4ZZZ in Brisbane.

A couple of years into our friendship, Kev invited me and my nine-year-old son, Declan, to go camping for a few days at Lake Wivenhoe, west of Brisbane. We walked and fished and kayaked, cooked and sang and picked around the campfire. One night we got to talking about Vincent Lingiari and the 1966 Gurindji walk-off from Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, a seminal event in the dawning land rights movement. 1988 had just passed, the 200th anniversary of white settlement. It was also the year that “that old man”, Vincent, had died. For many people he was a hero. I knew the broad outlines of the fabled, unfathomably long strike, and Kev had a few more details. My notebook contained a line I’d jotted down a few months before – “From little things, big things grow”. And when Kev said, “Let’s write a song about that old man, about the strike,” we were off.

With Kev doodling a few chords on the mandolin, me playing guitar and Declan poking the fire, we conjured most of the song over a couple of hours under the bright, bright stars. A couple of weeks later, after some more research, we finished it off over the phone.

I recorded and released my version of the song in 1991 and Kev his two years later. Over time the song gradually became popular. Many people have covered it, sometimes changing the melody. Others have adapted it, using the chorus but changing the words of the verses to tell their particular story. This is exactly how folk songs work, morphing and mutating down the years. And, being old folkies, that’s just fine with us.

In 1998, composer Mairead Hannan assembled a team, which included playwright John Romeril, director Rachel Perkins, Kev and me, to devise an hour-long musical drama on film. Called One Night The Moon, it tells the story of an Aboriginal tracker who is forbidden to help a search party find a missing child. The father, a station owner, won’t allow him on his property. After the search party fails, the mother, going behind the father’s back, seeks out the tracker and asks for his help. Following his theory that the child followed the light of the moon, the tracker finds the body of the girl in a crevice not far from the house.

The first song we wrote for it was called “This Land Is Mine”, an oppositional duet between the tracker and the father. They trade verses, the father starting with “This land is mine” and the tracker with “This land is me”. These starkly contrasted world views, summing up the invisibility of Indigenous culture to settler eyes, sounded the deep note of the film.

“This Land Is Mine” was the song chosen by a young Dan Sultan when I invited him in 2006 to take part in a tribute record to Kev called Cannot Buy My Soul. Kev had released a steady stream of albums independently over the years, building up a body of work I believe to be one of Australia’s enduring cultural treasures. He was known to a certain extent, an influence on young songwriters and bands, many of whom call him “Uncle”. But I wanted to shine a brighter light on his songs. With Kev’s blessing, I invited a host of singers and bands to record a selection. John Butler, Missy Higgins, Bernard Fanning and The Herd were among the roll call. The response was immediate and over the course of a year, songs, one by one, would appear in my mailbox. Little packages of excitement. I’ll never forget hearing The Drones doing “River of Tears” for the first time and my skin going all shivery. Not long after that “Eulogy (for a Black Person)” landed, recorded by The Pigram Brothers in Broome. Same thing. Then, later in that year of wonders, Archie Roach came over to my back shed and sang “Cannot Buy My Soul” to my “Kev style” fingerpicking accompaniment.

You took my life and liberty, friends
But you cannot buy my soul

I’ve never felt so lucky.

The album – a double consisting of Kev’s originals on one disc and the covers on the other – came out in 2007, and was launched with a sold-out concert, featuring most of the artists from the record. Tex Perkins strolled on stage with an open newspaper and sang “Darkside” like he was reading a news report. Clare Bowditch gathered the whole audience in her arms for the yearning love song “Blood Red Rose”. Missy Higgins, Glenn Richards and I, between us, scaled all 21 verses of the monumental “Droving Woman”, which turns the story of a tragic accident into a hymn to a vanishing way of life. Meanwhile, Kev, with a couple of grandchildren, sat on stage the whole time around a makeshift campfire, presiding over proceedings, narrating and occasionally joining in like… well, like an uncle. The love for Kev from the performers and audience was a palpable force. The standing ovation at the end went on forever. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

The adventures with Kev have continued. Late in 2014 we sang “From Little Things Big Things Grow” at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service as part of a big program planned meticulously by Gough before his death. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed selections of Gough’s favourite classical music to a packed Sydney Town Hall that included a phalanx of seven current and ex prime ministers in rows up the front. An array of stellar speakers paid homage, notably Noel Pearson, who was scheduled just before us. Noel was magnificent, in full rhetorical oratory mode – referring to Gough only as “this old man” and “this Roman” – his rich, rolling sentences punctuated by roars of applause. “What did this Roman ever do for us?!” I remember thinking to myself, Who the fuck scheduled us to follow Noel? This is like Chuck Berry having to follow Jerry Lee Lewis after Jerry’s just set fire to the piano! I needn’t have worried. Once we started singing, I knew we were going to be okay. Noel had called up a huge wave of emotion and all we had to do was surf it to shore.

Just before Gough’s memorial I met my partner, Siân Darling. In the usual way of courtship, we exchanged books and music. The very first thing I “lent” her was the Cannot Buy My Soul album, which disappeared straight into her car. Every time she picked me up to go somewhere it was playing. Not the covers, always Kev’s originals. Eighteen months ago, now good friends with Kev and Beryl, Siân proposed an updated version of the record, got Kev’s blessing again, and then the record company’s, and set to work overseeing the project and curating six new songs.

Released late August this year as a triple CD and double album, featuring “newbies” Jimmy Barnes, Kasey Chambers, Courtney Barnett, Electric Fields, Kate Miller-Heidke, Mo’Ju, Trials and Birdz, Cannot Buy My Soul: The Songs of Kev Carmody (2020 Edition) went to number six in the ARIA charts. At the age of 74, Kev was in the top 10 for the first time. Notable among the new versions is Electric Fields’ stunning makeover of “From Little Things…” with several verses sung in Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara and a film clip featuring footage of those “two old men” Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam walking together and exchanging earth.

Kev’s songs are more relevant now than ever and his sturdy tree of song continues to sprout new leaves. As he himself says, “I can put my guitar down now. The young ones are carrying it on.”

I rang him up recently after all the excitement and intense promo upon release. Beryl answered the phone.

“Hello, it’s Paul from Melbourne here.”

“Hello, it’s Beryl from Queensland here. Sorry, Kev’s on the tractor cleaning up the firebreaks before summer. Can you try him later?”



Electric Fields – From Little Things Big Things Grow

Kev Carmody – Thou Shalt Not Steal

Courtney Barnett – Just For You

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody at the Gough Whitlam memorial

Various – Droving Woman

Alice Skye – Blue You

Kate Miller-Heidke – Blood Red Rose

Kev Carmody – I’ve Been Moved

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly is an Australian musician. His books include the memoir How To Make Gravy and the poetry anthology Love Is Strong as Death.


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