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Archie Roach a National Truth Teller in Music

Archie Roach's songwriting awakened the world to the plight of Indigenous Australian children

Acclaimed Australian Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach has died, leaving behind a legacy of being the writer of some of the saddest, heart-breaking songs ever written.

His songs indeed came from his own heart. For Archie was a member of what became known as the “stolen generation” – thousands of Aboriginal children forcefully taken from their parents by Government agencies in Australia for almost 100 years.

Roach, who was 66, brought the plight to international attention in 1990 with the song “Took the Children Away” which was on his debut album Charcoal Lane. He would go on to record nine albums, various compilation releases and a soundtrack – to the film The Tracker. He would work closely with another Australian singer-songwriting legend Paul Kelly and go on to tour with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith and Billy Bragg.

But there is no doubt his work would forever be associated with the tragic saga of Indigenous children placed in orphanages or brought up by white foster families.

The opening verse to the richly-melodic “Took the Children Away” was stunning, leaving nothing to the imagination:

This story's right, this story's true I would not tell lies to you Like the promises they did not keep And how they fenced us in like sheep. Said to us come take our hand Sent us off to mission land. Taught us to read, to write and pray Then they took the children away, Took the children away, The children away. Snatched from their mother's breast Said this is for the best Took them away.

The song not only shed light on this murky policy but it also served to spotlight his own troubled life. Much of it was recounted in his 2019 memoir Tell Me Why in which he traversed the hurt the separation policies caused to Aboriginal families for generations.

The autobiography was accompanied by an album of the same name which became a top ten best-seller in the same year.

Roach was one of seven siblings and when he was around three years old, he and two sisters were taken from their parents Nellie Austin and Archie Roach Snr. They were raised by a white family, Alex and Dulcie Cox, who moved to Australia from Scotland. The children had been told their birth parents had died in a house fire.

Roach never blamed his adopted parents for the family’s plight and warmly credited his foster dad for introducing him to not only traditional Scottish music but to the work of Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson. And when he heard a woman playing Hank Williams at a church service, Archie decided he wanted to play guitar.

But at 15, his life changed when a sister he never knew he had, wrote to him saying their birth mother had died and detailing the truth of the family separation. With guitar in hand, Archie left home in search of his lost family. What followed were years of dire misery during which he became a destitute alcoholic, spending time in both hospital and prison.

By the age of 17, he was staying at a welfare centre administered by the Salvation Army. And there he met the woman who would change his life forever. Ruby Hunter was also a child of the stolen generation and, like Roach, a keen musician. They became inseparable, soon married and had two boys. “It turned my life around,” he wrote in his biography.

He and Ruby would collaborate musically and perform together over the years, their most notable appearance being in Federation Square, Melbourne, in 2008 when they performed “Took the Children Away” while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was in Parliament House, Canberra, giving a public apology to the stolen generations.

Sadly, Ruby died in 2010, aged 54, and the next few years were again difficult for Archie. He suffered a stroke in the same year and was later diagnosed with cancer, resulting in him losing part of a lung.

However, it only inspired him to greater creativity. For in 2012, “with oxygen bottle in hand” he recorded a new album Into The Bloodstream - hailed as his greatest work. And the album would include two tracks as tearful and endearing as “Took the Children Away."

The first is “Mulyawongk” – a most beautiful tribute to his lost wife.

When Ruby left the river

It cried so bitterly

She was born by the water’s edge

Underneath the tree

When she come back to the river

It cried so happily

Cause she no longer a stranger

On her own country

The second is “Old Mission Road” where he explored his lost childhood with lyrics to warm even the coldest heart.

Won’t you walk with me darling

For a couple of miles

Won’t you tell me the stories

Of when I was a child

I’ll be so happy

As the stories unfold

Won’t you walk with me darling

Down that old mission road

Roach’s lyrical embrace of his stolen past on Into The Bloodstream did not end there. On “Hush Now Babies”, a duet with Emma Donovan, he explored the joys of childhood, but was somewhat ambiguous as to whether it was the one he had, or the childhood he wished for - there is a reference to seven children!

One time when Christmas came ‘round

She cooked a bird that weighed about three pounds

And seven children had a share

She gave our dad a weary smile

Held him close and closed her eyes a while

And she seemed to say a silent prayer

And then she’d say

Hush now babies don’t you cry

Things look better by and by

Whatever the intention, there is no doubt that Roach’s work was essentially one of healing, both his own personal circumstances and that of a nation troubled by its past.

Roach had long been regarded as a political influence for change in his creative efforts to publicize the inequity facing Indigenous Australians. And in 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to music and social justice. Five years later, he was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame.

It is not every day that a current political leader is prompted to make a statement on the death of a recording artist. But Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was quick to mourn his passing: “Archie’s music drew from a well of trauma and pain, but it flowed with a beauty and a resonance that moved us all. We grieve for his death, we honour his life and we hold to the hope that his words, his music and his indomitable spirit will live on to guide us and inspire us.

“Our country has lost a brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth teller.”

He was indeed a national truth teller – in music!

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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