Kevin Daniel “Kev” Carmody (born 1946, Cairns, Queensland) is an Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter. One of his most well known songs is “From Little Things Big Things Grow” which he recorded with co-writer Paul Kelly in1993. Carmody was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame on 27 August 2009.
Kev Carmody was born in 1946 in Cairns, Queensland. His father was a second-generation Irish descendant, and his mother an Indigenous Australian of the Murri people. His family moved to southern Queensland in early 1950, and he grew up on a cattle station near Goranba, 70 km west of Dalby in the Darling Downs area of south eastern Queensland. Both parents worked as drovers, moving cattle along stock routes.
At ten years of age, Carmody and his brother were taken from their parents under the assimilation policy as part of the Stolen Generations and sent to a Christian school in Toowoomba. After schooling, Carmody returned to his rural roots and worked for seventeen years as a country labourer, which including droving work, shearing, bag lumping, wool pressing and welding.
In 1967 he married Helen, with whom he had three sons. They later divorced but remain “good mates” In 1978, at the age of 33, Carmody enrolled in university, Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education.
“At the night time I was always just interested in music, so I started to study music by myself, and got to a standard to where I could go to a proper music teacher.” And she said to me, “you know, you’re miles ahead of the standard they’d require to get into the music course at the University of Southern Queensland.”
Due to his limited schooling, Carmody’s reading and writing skills were not up to required university standard. Undeterred, he suggested to the history tutor that until his writing was suitable he would present his research in a musical format accompanied by guitar. Whilst this was a novel approach at university, it was in line with the far older indigenous tradition of oral history. Although Carmody had extensive historical knowledge, learnt by oral traditions, much of it could not be found in library history books and was attributed to ‘unpublished works’
Carmody completed his Bachelor of Arts degree, then postgraduate studies and a Diploma of Education at the University of Queensland. “I was supposed to be studying history and music, but I’d be in the library with books on everything, including geology and theorems of thermodynamics. I wished I’d had the time to take every course.”
Whilst at university, Carmody had used music as a means of implementing oral history in tutorials, which led to his later career.
In the early 1980s, Carmody began his musical career. He signed a recording contract in 1987 and his first album, Pillars of Society, was released on the Rutabagas label (a label founded by artist Frances Mahony and technologist Joe Hayes). It drew heavily upon country and folk styles with tracks such as “Black Deaths in Custody” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal” describing ignorance and oppression experienced by indigenous Australians In the song “Thou Shalt Not Steal”, Carmody draws attention to the hypocrisy of British settlers who brought Christianity to indigenous Australians, including the commandment prohibiting theft, and yet took the land that the Aboriginal people had inhabited for more than 60,000 years.
He emphasises the importance of land to the indigenous people, “The land is our heritage and spirit”, and turns the Christian lesson given to indigenous people around: “We say to you yes, whiteman, thou shalt not steal”.
A Rolling Stone (Australia) journalist, Bruce Elder, described it as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
In subsequent recordings Carmody adopted a broad range of musical styles, from reggae to rock and roll.
“That first album was acoustic because we didn’t have enough money for anything else, but as I went on, I was always exploring sound. One of the things he [Carmody’s grandfather] said to us was, you have to learn to listen to the wind. What he was saying was, use your imagination, widen it out, be aware of things around you. You learn to listen in another way. That’s the key to my music. Just opening up to that sensory perception of sound.
Carmody’s second album, Eulogy (For a Black Person), was released in November 1990. A review of the album noted that “Using a combination of folk and country music his hard-hitting lyrics deal with such potent material as the David Gundy slaying, black deaths in custody, land rights and Aboriginal pride and dignity. Carmody is deeply committed, powerfully intelligent and persuasively provocative. He uses images of revolutionaries… and challenges white Australia to stare unrelentingly at the despair which underpins Aboriginal society”.
Early in 1991 Carmody co-wrote a song, “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, with Paul Kelly. It was an historical account of the Gurindji tribe drovers’ walkout led by Vincent Lingiari at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory during the 1960s, the incident which sparked off the indigenous land rights movement
Carmody’s third album, Bloodlines, was released in July 1993 and included his own version of “From Little Things Big Things Grow“, with Kelly guesting on vocals, which was issued as a single. Also in 1993 Carmody was the subject of a musical documentary, Blood Brothers – From Little Things Big Things Grow, by Rachel Perkins and directed by Trevor Graham, which explored Carmody’s life, using music clips and historical footage.
. In 2001, together with Kelly, Mairead Hannan, John Romeril, Deirdre Hannan and Alice Garner, Carmody assisted in writing the musical score for the Australian film One Night the Moon. The soundtrack won a Screen Music Award at the 2002 Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA)/Australian Guild of Screen Composers (AGSC) Awards.
After a break of nearly ten years Carmody finally released a new album in 2004. The album, Mirrors, was completely self-financed and distributed. It was recorded at a friend’s property “down the road” and was his first album recorded with computer technology. The songs on Mirrors cover a range of contemporary issues including refugee treatment and his thoughts on United States President George W. Bush, accompanied by the captured real life sounds of the Australian bush.
“I first heard Kev Carmody’s music 20 years ago, and was drawn straight away to his blend of politics and prayer, poetry, anger and pride. His body of work is one of our great cultural treasures.”
When Carmody accepted his induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame he said, “I accepted this for the Koori culture, the community and the family […] It’s a recognition of the input we’ve had on music. My songs came from what my grandmother, my mother, father, aunty and uncles told me. I’m just a conduit of stories.
Kev Carmody lives with his partner Beryl on a 27-hectare (60-acres) bush block in south-east Queensland.