“I was traveling out on the motorbike. I’m hauling down the highway one night, about 11’o’clock, and argh, I just thought it was the wind, and I didn’t realise the bloody bag had dropped off, but the bungee cord was still connected to the bike and shredded it for 26 miles. So the next day I went back, got the old troop carrier land rover that I had, got the boys, and we went along the road and we picked up every bit we could find, and put it into plastic bags. As a postgraduate student I had a room in a university house, spread it out on the floor, called me supervisor over and said look, there’s me thesis mate…”
Such was the improbable finale to the university career of Kevin Carmody, singer/ songwriter, Aboriginal activist, environmentalist, social worker, nuisance to the political establishment and one time Phd history student. Reviews of Carmody’s albums are often almost reverential of his songwriting abilities, and the esteem in which he is held is reflected in the cross section of the cream of Australian talent vying for attention on his tribute album, ‘Cannot Buy My Soul.’ Over the crackly connection from his Queensland home, there is a hint of amusement in his voice as he recounts this footnote from his turbulent life journey. One gets the sense that Kevin is a character not easily fazed by such minor details or pitfalls, he has different work to do and a more profound message to impart.
The winding path of this life has it’s roots in a reality all but relegated to romantic history for the vast majority of urban Australia. It began with a nomadic droving lifestyle, in the post war period, living largely off the land. Carmody’s father was an Australian born drover of Irish heritage, “one step above the Aboriginals” as he notes of how the Irish were treated, and his mother a Murri woman whose country lies in the far north of Queensland. His early life was “surrounded by sensory perception” and the “phenomenal sounds of the wildlife.” The world as it appeared was a vast classroom of nature and the bounty she provides. Kevin can vividly recollect the smell of incoming rain, the meanings of different bird calls, and traditional stories, laden with meaning, taught to him from the “huge blackboard” that was the night sky. He learnt the ancient art of tracking from family members at the age of four, and helped out by shooting roos at the waterholes that the family camped near. “Everybody lent a hand,” is how he describes the spirit of mutual care and dependence from his early years. Contemplating that time, Kevin seems somewhat baffled by how later white ‘explorers’ such as Burke and Wills could possibly starve in this Garden of Eden.
However, the forcible removal of indigenous children was an ugly specter in the background of this happy family life, and as a result of that his parents had only two children, Kevin and a brother six years his junior. Although they were not ‘stolen’ in the sense that they were ripped from their screaming parents arms, as he recounts, “well we had to go.” On the first day of ‘school’ at, somewhat disturbingly, a former army barracks, as his parents left “They (the nuns) surrounded us and held us… held us down actually, in the corner of the dormitory.” Kevin was a child of ten. His brother was four years old.
Life in the barracks was full of alien customs for the Carmody boys. In their former existence it was considered “absolutely breaking the law” to defecate in water, yet puzzled, they noted that there was water in the toilets of their new home. Responsibly, they went outside to relieve themselves on the first night and received a flogging for their troubles, and not for the first time. Flogging was a routine punishment that could be meted out for a variety of crimes such as “getting your sums wrong” and “spelling something wrong in English.” Being physically abused in this way in public in front of a hundred odd other students was par for the course. The country boys were also put to work, collecting eggs, (which were subsequently sold rather than be fed to the students) washing dishes and helping out in the kitchen, so “there wasn’t too much time for school.”
Kevin’s voice is a matter of fact. It is a tale he has no doubt recounted on many occasions, and not the most gut wrenching account of the scarred recent history of indigenous people. Yet one can still get a sense, from these memories, of how experiences such as this shaped the character of an artist who can at times pack a hefty punch to the solar plexus of the listener.
From the age of thirteen, Kevin found employment in a variety of different jobs. The sudden turn in direction came with the ascent of the Whitlam government.
“At the night time I was always just interested in music, so I started to study music (by himself) and got to a standard, when I moved to Toowoomba and got a proper music teacher. And she said to me, ‘you know, your miles ahead of the standard they’d require to get into the music course at the University of Southern Queensland.’
“So that’s the first time it occurred to you to go to University?”
“Well it was better than the bloody welding sheds,.but the point is that I’d never been to a bloody library in me life, but I went out and auditioned, I’d been teaching myself out of a book, but they didn’t have a classical guitar teacher of the standard that the course required, so they said do a third of it history and philosophy.”
Due to his shoddy schooling, Kevin’s reading and writing skills were not initially up to the required university standard. Undeterred, he suggested to the history tutor that until such a time as his writing was up to scratch, he would present his research in a musical format accompanied by his guitar. It may have sounded like a novel approach but this was keeping in line with the far older indigenous tradition of history being transmitted without the use of books. Although he had extensive historical knowledge, learnt from his oral traditions, much of it could not be found in library history books and therefore technically cold not be cited in university assignments. His way around this was to attribute his sources to “unpublished works.” His academic career progressed until that fateful night on the motorbike, and then, “By that time, it must have been about ’87, I’d signed the record contract (for his first album) and that puts you on the bloody treadmill then so I deferred the Phd.”
The first of Kevin’s albums ‘Pillars of Society’ was cut, not coincidentally, 1988 and was designed to give “the other side of the fence” to the Bicentennial. In a real sense his career as a historian continued after he left university, “To me, the object of the music is to put down the oral history.”
It should be difficult to juxtapose the anger in some of Carmody’s lyrics with the ebullient enthusiasm and positivity projected through the voice on the line, yet somehow it is not. To talk only about the anger in some of his work would be to grossly misrepresent the message. Kevin speaks passionately and optimistically about his hopes for the future, and for his love of the country. These days his playing career is severely hampered by “Arthur Rightus,” yet he is honoured and delighted that his lyrics have found their way to a new generation of artists and different musical formats, seeing this as a strength of the oral tradition which he upholds.
“Tear it up, put your own bloody lyrics in, but make it relevant to your generation. Therefore the record becomes a collective, not Kev Carmody. We, all together, are saying this is what we think, this is what we feel.”
One can envisage that the lessons of this great Australian oral historian, who began his studies under the Queensland stars all those years ago, will continue their singing long after he has gone. Ironically, it was merely the path of the ill-fated thesis that ended in tatters on the highway from Brisbane.
‘They taught us
Oh Oh black woman thou shalt not steal
Oh Oh black man thou shalt not steal
We’re gonna civilise
Your black barbaric lives
And teach you how to kneel
But your history couldn’t hide
The hypocrisy to us was real
‘cause your Jesus said
You’re supposed to give the oppressed a better deal
We say to you, yes whiteman thou shalt not steal
Oh ya our land you’d better heal’
(From Thou Shalt Not Steal sung by Kevin Carmody and the John Butler Trio on ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’)