BLACK MUSIC MATTERS

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Cannot Buy My Soul (K Carmody)– Kevin Carmody 1991

Kevin Carmody was born in 1946 in Cairns (Qld), he grew up on a cattle station west of Dalby in Queensland’s Darling Downs region, Francis his father was a second- generation Irish immigrant and his mother Bonny was an indigenous Australian of the Murri people. At the age of ten he was taken from his parents and sent to a boarding school in Toowoomba, he was part of the infamous Stolen Generation of young indigenous children who were abducted from their birth families, and forcibly assimilated into white society throughout the period 1905-1970.

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Upon leaving the Downlands Catholic College before completing his education in the early 1960’s, Carmody spent almost two decades as a poorly-paid country labourer – droving, shearing, bag lumping, wool pressing, and welding – but while travelling to and from droving camps he would pass rubbish dumps, “we used to call them “open air supermarkets” because we’d pick up the nails, the bolts, bits of wire, lumps of tin, and take them all home. One day, I picked up this book and it was all wet, but it said Teach Yourself the Guitar. I thought, “Geez, that’s a good title for a book!” It wasn’t “You too can play guitar”, it was “Teach your bloody self the guitar!” So I took it back to the camp, dried it out on the open fire, and it had the basics of finger playing, of the four fingers, and from that point on, I was just experimenting. If you listen to Cannot Buy My Soul, the actual finger bit on that, it’s very simple, but that was me just practicing how to use the four fingers in one pattern …and I thought, “Well, I’ll put words to it,” so the song started off as a little “do it yourself piece to learn to use my four fingers, because I just use the guitar and myself, I’ve never done bands much…” (Kev’s Country – Matthew Condon- The Weekend Australian Aug. 15, 2020)

He met and married Helen, with whom he had three sons, they later divorced, but remained on good terms, in 1978 he was admitted to study music at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (later the University of Southern Queensland), on the basis that his research would be presented in a musical format, accompanied on his guitar, as his reading and writing skills were not of university entrance standard. This apparently novel approach was quite consistent with the Aboriginal tradition of oral history, and encouraged Carmody to believe that he could not only compose strikingly original songs, but that he could professionally perform then as well. He met his future wife Beryl while studying at university, where he was a voracious consumer of knowledge from many disciplines, he graduated with an Arts Degree and a Teaching Diploma.

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 In 1988 at the age of forty-two he would record his debut album of original songs, Pillars Of Society which hinted at the enormous potential that Carmody possessed as a singer/songwriter, Kevin had found a way to express his anger and bitterness about the treatment of indigenous people, songs like  Black Deaths In Custody, Thou Shall Not Steal, Black Bess, and Jack Deelin’, were all lacerating protest songs about Aboriginal land rights, genocide, exploitation, homelessness, and social marginalisation.

The bluesy Twisted Rail was populated by such colourful characters as Fast Willie “with a razor and jack-knife up his leg”, Crooked Louis “who can’ lay straight in bed”, Blind Arnold, and Sexy Sandra. Attack, Attack and White Bourgeoise Woman showed Carmody exorcising his personal demons, dealing with loss and espousing activism and collectivism to change black lives for the better. Carmody emerged as a force to be reckoned with, Rolling Stone magazine said of Pillars of Society “arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia” and proclaimed Kevin to be “Australia’s Black Bob Dylan.” In the liner notes to Cannot Buy My Soul Paul Kelly expressed his admiration of Carmody’s musical blending of politics and prayer, poetry, anger, and pride “His body of work is one of great cultural treasures, incorporating oral history, the ongoing hurt of dispossession and the healing powers of nature but, though influential and highly regarded in all corners of the country, is largely unknown to many Australians.”

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In 1991 he released his second album, Eulogy (For A Black Person), which featured the song You Cannot Buy My Soul, musically it is a plaintive Dylan-esque protest song, a mournful harmonica and plain acoustic strumming accompanied the singing/speaking vocals of Kevin Carmody, who referenced such iconic revolutionary figures as guerrilla leader Che Geuvera, American labour activist  Joe Hill and eighteenth century Aboriginal resistance fighter Pemulwuy who opposed early British colonisation, all three died because of the causes they espoused. “Joe Hill died, Che Guevera fought and Permuluy lay down dead/ If a person speaks out critically here you can get loaded down with lead/How long can the majority wait for their story to unfold/They took their life and liberty friends, but they could not buy their soul.” The potency of the message and the simple folksy/bluesy arrangement brings an immediacy and quiet urgency to what is a relatively unadorned song, Carmody’s vocals are rich, earthy, and powerfully convey the reality of white Australia’s treatment of its land and first people.

Protest is a recurring theme throughout Carmody’s songs, but he is also a narrator and a poet, with an innate connection to the natural world, who combines lyrics and music in a unique and beguiling way. In 2007 Paul Kelly initiated a landmark 2 CD Kevin Carmody tribute album entitled Cannot Buy My Soul, which featured original recordings of Carmody’s songs and versions of those same songs by others – Dan Kelly, John Butler Trio, Bernard Fanning, The Drones, Archie Roach, Clare Bowditch, and others; the album was re-issued in 2020 with the addition of six new Carmody original songs and their re-imagining by such artists as Jimmy Barnes, Kasey Chambers, Kate-Miller Heideke, Courtney Barnett, Alice Skye, Electric Fields and others.

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