Kev Carmody: back to the earth

November 27, 1991

Accompanied by Neil Murray, Dave Steel, Andrew O'Phee, and Bart Willoughby and Murray Cook from Mixed Relations, Aboriginal musician KEV CARMODY launched his new album, Eulogy (for a black person), before a full house at Sydney's Rose Shamrock and Thistle hotel on November 21. During a break, Carmody spoke to Green Left Weekly's JOHN TOGNOLINI.

"I'm getting a bit old, and everyone has got to die", Carmody began, and that's a lot of what the new album is about. "It's that whole sense of rebirth, that no energy is dissipated. Christians call it soul. I just say you go back to the earth, that's it.

"It's not about worshipping the land or anything like that, it's about understanding that the land is so much a part of us. European people, especially the colonists, thought that they could conquer the land, that they could push it around and make it do what they wanted. Now we've got one of the driest droughts they've ever seen in southern Queensland.

"They find that they can't squeeze the land, because eventually it'll squeeze you. But they have no respect for it, no understanding of what I was told as a young fellow, that you're just this tiny part of the whole scheme of things.

"Eulogy means in praise of. The earth doesn't need us, we need it. There's a lot of ecologists going down different paths, but there's no real spiritual affinity with the land. They see it in some ways as something to walk through at weekends and have a place where your kids can go. There's something more, over and above, that needs to be redefined and put back into the wider culture. We Murris certainly had that appreciation."

Besides its spiritual dimension, Kev Carmody's music is also about struggle. In one of his earlier songs, "You Can't Buy a Soul", he writes, "Joe Hill died, Che Guevara fought and Pemulwuy lay down dead. If a person speaks out critically you can get loaded with lead."

"That's a statement I did years ago for protests up home", he says. "It means you can't kill the spirit of a people if the principles are right and based on proper law not corporate law. Most of the laws in this land are based on property, and just saying you can kill people, execute them, torture them, lock them up it makes no difference. But the truth will come out eventually."

Kev came originally from western Queensland, "cattle country, 300 miles west of Brisbane. Dad was a drover all his life. We went right up to Charleville and St George to make a living. It was one of the few jobs Murri people could get those days."

He also spent a lot of his life in metal workshops. "I did a bloody long time in steel sheds. Technology came to the back country out there with combine harvesters. I used to cut cane, then cane harvesters came in and bulk handling of grain. No more bag napping and sewing. That forced a shifting to the fringes of the towns. "I swept the floor of a welding shed for nine months and taught myself to weld during the lunch breaks and then got onto the night shift welding. I spent seven years in welding sheds.

"I was always in unions. The shearers' union was a good one. You had your contract signed before you started, with all your conditions, and you stuck to them. Some of the other unions were a bit funny, I found. Too big, I think. Shearing sheds were the first placed I got unionised, and that taught me a whole of a lot."

For Aborigines, living in Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland "was like having terminal piles". Even so, for a while after the fall of the National Party government, Kev says he almost started to have faith in "colonial law". A few of the cabinet ministers "got convicted and received little tiny sentences". But the outcome of the Joh trial put things back in perspective. "He's gone, but we've got pretty well the same sort of mentality there. It's just a different window dressing but the same sort of shop.

"It makes you disillusioned with the concept of representative democracy, because all you have to do is control the parliament. There's only about 400 people who've got control. Read the definition of democracy: tolerance of minorities, government by all the people and absence of hereditary class distinction. Well, that's a big concept of democracy. I've never seen it, not yet, except in black culture. Real government should be down the bottom of the pyramid with the community controlling the top, not the top controlling the bottom."

Some North American musicians had a big influence on Carmody. Woody Guthrie, "we heard him in the '50s, Huddy Ledbetter, early Jimmie Rogers and Blind Willie McTell, those sort of blues singers. We fitted them in with our sort of music because we had a lot music going around the campfires too.

"We first listened to their chord structures and melodies in our droving camps, because there was always some sort of music happening. You can just take a Hank Williams tune and use it as oral history. Everybody would know the tune and the older people would put words to it about something that happened. Because a lot of my relations couldn't read and write, that's why the music was so much a part of the culture."

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