I seem to be on a roll with Australian musicians at the moment, so bear with me while I offer a tribute to another one…
A few years ago I discovered that one of my favourite Paul Kelly songs, “Elly” was actually a cover of a song by an Indigenous Australian songwriter called Kev Carmody. I investigated further and discovered an artist of immense stature and standing, who has since become one of my most admired songwriters.
Kev Carmody was born into a family of stock drovers in southern Queensland and spent his youth working on cattle stations there. He went to university at the age of 33 and, not being able to read or write too well, found music a way to communicate his learning. Much of his work has centred on Aboriginal land rights issues and he has been a campaigner and activist on that front. He has also become one of Australia’s greatest songwriters, despite having being shamefully under-recognized there and elsewhere.
Paul Kelly has worked hard to bring some much-deserved attention to Carmody – along with his cover of “Elly,” another of Kelly’s most famous songs, “From Little Things Big Things Grow,” was co-written with Kev. Then, in 2007, Kelly gathered a diverse ensemble of Australian performers together to record versions of Kev’s songs, which were released as the double album “Cannot Buy My Soul.”
“Elly” struck me the first time I heard it as a stunning song– an authentic story that captured the essence of its characters and the landscape they move through powerfully; brimming with sadness and beauty.
Elly wrapped her 19 years in a coat from ’41
She had the looks that would make a grown man cry
From the Diamantina River country, she crossed the dry mid-west
From her childhood dreams and sheltered schemes she cut the ties
The commercial man made blunt demands, as they travelled south by east
Elly turned into a woman overnight
They sat her down in the heart of town
The millionaire’s retreat
She gazed up the tall, glassed concrete walls of main street Surfers Paradise
Kev’s songs are sunbaked and raw, direct and unadorned… take “Droving Woman,” for example. Twenty one verses long, it’s a story related by an indigenous woman at the funeral of her husband, describing their life together following cattle across the vast Australian plains.
She says “At the start well we knewed it so hard
We were always dealt the severest of cards
Honeymoon spent droving Jamieson’s stock
Through the wildest winter you seen
The song drifts like a slow moving herd through the tale, never changing pace or direction, unburdened by choruses or bridges, relying only on the power of its narrative and bittersweet melody to draw the listener along for the ride, which it does – effortlessly. It doesn’t shoot for grand statements, or use lyrical sleight of hand to achieve its magic – it simply lets the essential, universal truths within the story shine hard and bright as the night sky over the Australian desert…
I’ll sell up the plant and I’ll move here to town
Before the winter returns with a chill on the ground
For what I’ve just lost can seldom be found
I was blessed with the gentlest of men
Eventually the children will move to the east
But I couldn’t stand the bustle of even a quiet city street
I’ll stay in the scrub here where my heart really beats
For some dogs grow too old for change.
Another of Kev’s songs that hit me like a stomach punch when I first heard it is “Darkside,” a graphic portrait of urban decay on the wrong side of the tracks in a place called Logan in Queensland. The gritty journalistic style of the song was what got me; along with the way Kev sings;
Tavern drive-in, ya buy the piss
The grog we flog, they’ll never miss
The chorus, strung over a disturbing minor chord change, has a stark, raw power to it;
On the southside, darkside
South of the freeway them Logan kids
Used to hang out in that trashed out Rooster & Ribs
Songs don’t come much grittier than this – Kev presents the “darkside” of the Australian dream in a detached yet detailed manner that is devastating in its impact. When I listen to this song I can smell the vomit, feel the oppression of concrete and cars and the emptiness of directionless youth cut off from Nature.
Most nights ya screw or fight
Girlfriends, boyfriends, use the night
Hide their reality from society
Only place you can feel free
Moans, smashed glass, trashed out spew
Shit-hole smell, rat-shit view
On the southside….
This urban divorcement from the natural world is a recurring theme in Kev’s work. As someone who grew up in a fairly wild place, I really relate to this aspect of his lyrics. One of Kev’s most beautiful songs is “On the Wire,” in which the central character returns to his homeland after a long spell in the city…
I saw people who were trapped
Under the whip of fat cats
Saw people there devoid of their Dreaming
Deep down inside there with so much to hide
Brother you could see in their eyes there’s no meaning
So take me my sisters and welcome me home
So I never again walk alone
Our spirit demands that we die in this land
And I know now my spirit’s come home.
Kev’s music seems to be quite hard to find – I would have liked to link to a few more of the songs I’ve discussed here, but I can’t find them on the net. I bought my copy of “Cannot Buy my Soul” directly from Kev’s website, and it can also be found on Spotify. I recommend listening to the second half (which is Kev’s original recorded versions) first, before tackling the cover versions. Some of the covers are good, but it’s hard to improve on Kev’s uniquely indigenous delivery of his own songs.