Soul man Karen Ford
October 23, 2009external image 68adba9c-c1d2-11de-a689-0014220c8f46-1226223.jpgPaul Kelly performs. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
AS I write, I'm listening to The Women At The Well, a compilation of Australian women singing Paul Kelly songs. What becomes so powerful is the interpretation and texture that each woman's voice brings to Kelly's lyrics. What links them is Kelly's ability to ''speak'' to his listeners and make us feel like he's talking directly to us whether we're ''on the other end of the phone'', ''driving in the car'', ''somewhere in the city'' or ''standing on the corner''.
Kelly's ability to capture the human experience and remind us that ''there's nothing wrong with being wrong sometimes'' is what draws us to his work, while allowing us to reflect upon the things that link us all: love, loss, family, trust, truth and the misnomer that we might think we have ''lips that kiss and eyes that shine'' but in the end ''we can't take it with us''.
I have to confess to feeling a bit pretentious talking about Kelly's lyrics as if I know all the answers. I can only talk about how his lyrics affect me, some songs moving me more than others because they tap into my sensibilities, my context. Such a response is important, as part of the study of Kelly's lyrics - there is no one right answer to how we are to respond to his words and this is an important criteria to your study of Kelly.
Some of us will connect with the idea that we are ''beggars on the street of love'' searching for love, while others foolishly believe that we've ''always been the one so in control''.
Many of us would be moved by the power of This Land is Mine where the dispute over land ownership is explored through the two voices of the ''owners''. By using the voices of the father and the tracker, Kelly allows us to hear the two sides of the conflict and we understand the solution is not so simple. The father's struggle is revealed in ''Every break of day/I'm working hard just to make it pay'' and ''Bank breathing down my neck/They won't take it away''.
On the other hand, Kelly gives us the voice of the tracker who reveals his connection with the land through ''This land is me/Rock, water, animal, tree''. Kelly's inclusion of the elements reminds us that for the Aboriginal people the connection to the land is an essential part of their being. How do we reconcile the battle over land rights when one argues ''the land is mine'' while the other argues ''the land is me''?
In Bicentennial Kelly reminds us that not all of us see British colonisation as cause for celebration.
Through his use of the pronouns ''you'' and ''they'' Kelly magnifies the chasm that exists between cultures. The ''you'' is the alien, ungraciously intruding into the home of the Aborigines. The notion of celebration, as suggested in the language ''a party's waiting on the shore ... And they want us all to cheer'' is ironic and serves to remind readers of the other side of this ''celebration''.
In stark contrast to this is Kelly's second verse where the reality is personalised by the suicide of Charlie whose ''body's swinging'' in a prison cell. Such powerful imagery of his suicide unequivocally highlights Kelly's anger at such a tragedy. The refrain, ''Take me away from your dance floor... I have not the heart for dancing/For dancing on his grave'' articulates the plight of the Aborigines and their continuous mistreatment by ''white fella''. The repetition of this verse gives emphasis, as does the individual word ''dancing'' for it is far from a celebration. Kelly's lyrics serve to remind us that there are always two sides and in order to live harmoniously we must value the rights of all.
Don't Start Me Talking also gives us glimpses into the fumblings and stuff-ups inherent in human nature. As much as we embrace Kelly's lyrics for their message to us, we love them because he reveals his own inadequacies and mistakes, and the character in his lyrics is both him and everyone. In Maybe This Time For Sure, the voice speaks to the universal quality of human error - the recognition of past actions and learning from our mistakes.
What is so appealing about this track is the constant repetition of the phrase, almost as if the voice knows he will continue to fall, get up and stumble on again and again. With its shared theme of incarceration Maybe This Time For Sure links to Kelly's more popular How To Make Gravy.
In both instances, the voice is that of the prisoner lamenting lost opportunities, but while How To Make Gravy focuses on the family context, the voice in Maybe This Time For Sure focuses on the self - emphasised by the repeated use of first person. What is so powerful is the paradox that exists in the title. While the notion of certainty is reinforced with ''For Sure'', the juxtaposition with ''Maybe'' reminds us that chance, uncertainty and temptation can undermine any surety we have in life. With ''Maybe'' repeated 18 times, the voice highlights the difficulty between the ideal and the reality. Inherent in the voice's desire for a better life is the sense of regret at past mistakes; those brought about by foolishness and ''Satan''.
The universality of the song's lyrics is revealed in ''I just might learn my lesson'' where the reader connects with Kelly's message that we've all made mistakes and we're all prone to temptation. Even though the voice is of the individual, we can't help but be linked by the shared experience of falling ''for temptation''.
As Neil Finn says of Kelly, it is the way he ''mixes up everyday detail with the big issues of life, death, love and struggle - not a trace of pretence or fakery in there''. Whether Kelly is commenting on the ''big issues'' or the intimate human experience, one thing is certain, he knows his stuff really well and we can't help but be affected by his words.
Karen Ford is a lecturer with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne.

Further references

The Women At The Well - The Songs Of Paul Kelly CD Label: WM Australia
Paul Kelly website
Unofficial website Paul Kelly
Enough Rope Interview transcript
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Re: Soul man
Paul Kelly how to describe him but when i think of him only 1 word comes to mind LEGEND dead set stared in the movie one night the moon Paul Kelly could be the next Chuch Norris
Jack, 26 October 2009, Year 9 - DVC
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Re: Soul man
when i think of paul kelly the word that comes to mind is legend he is soooo great
daniel, 26 October 2009, Year 9 - DVC
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Re: Soul man
I know this forum is for students, but I have to add something: way back in 1992 I wrote one of my VCE CATs on Paul Kelly's lyrics, before they were on the curriculum. Frankly I could never 'got' poetry (still don't) but they come close. Very happy to see others agree his work is worthy of study and reflection.
Anna, 28 October 2009, Other - n/a
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