These are the opening lines of Archie Roach’s song ‘Took the Children Away’ and the poignant introduction used by David Sly, journalist, writer, author and editor, in a compelling interview with the man himself at Adelaide Writers Week 2020.
It’s hard to know where to start in describing Archie Roach but this softly spoken Australian artist has a strongly palpable yet gentle presence. He has a charismatic demeanor and humbly speaks of the highs and lows of his life in his memoir, ‘Tell me Why’. There have been many pivotal moments in his life but he starts with one of the saddest times as he recalls the 17th of February 2010 when his beloved Ruby Hunter, his partner of 38 years passed away. In the same year he suffered a stroke and then just a year later received a diagnosis of lung cancer. In his own words at that stage he thought, ‘is this enough, or should I suffer some more?’ Rather than dwell on what had befallen him, he sought refuge and healing in performing and recording as he has done in the past.
He doesn’t shy away from the troubles he encountered in his younger life including alcoholism, fighting and getting in trouble with the law but says music and writing songs became his healing and helped him. What he finds even more heart warming is that through his songs he has helped others through hard times, especially young indigenous Australians who refer to him as Uncle, a mark of respect. ‘It hits you deep’ he says in his gravelly voice as he folds his fingers and taps his heart. ‘Blows me away’ he continues.
His memoir is about family. From being a stolen child, forcibly removed at the age of 2 as many aboriginal children were in that time of Australia’s history, to being brought up by loving foster parents and finding out at the age of 14 the truth about his family and how that changed the course of his life. To hear him describe the circumstances of that day hits with a force that makes you gasp. As he explains the scenario, he was 14 years old, sitting in a classroom when a voice over the loudspeaker calls for Archibald William Roach to come to the office. At first he doesn’t even realise it is referring to him, having been known as Archie Cox with his foster parents, but for some reason the name resonates with him so he went to the office only to be handed a letter which started with ‘Dear Brother, your dear old mum passed away a week ago’. It went on to name his brothers and sisters but sadly also informed him that his father also named Archie had passed away too. And so started a path to a completely different life. The news came as a shock to him and his foster parents who had all been lied to, told that his family had perished in a house fire and he was the only survivor. Hence the title of his memoir ‘Tell me Why’.
After receiving the news he naturally wanted to find out more so he headed to Sydney to try and find the writer of the letter. He didn’t find her but finished up drifting around Sydney and his experiences here led him to a self-destructive period of his life. After Sydney he ended up in Melbourne and spent time in a tent boxing troop. A pivotal time in his life again happened when he came to Adelaide and stayed at the ‘Peoples Palace’, low cost accommodation provided by the Salvation Army home in the city. He tells a terrific story of meeting a beautiful young girl that he can describe down to the smallest detail what she was wearing. He asked her ‘Where do all the black fellas drink?’ to which she replied ‘Follow me’ and he says, ‘I did for the next 38 years’. What a love story.
It was here in Adelaide that as well as grog being passed around in one of the city squares, there was a guitar which, when he indicated he could play a little, he was given it and encouraged by Ruby to play. Because she said so, he did. His first song that became a hit in 1990 was ‘Took the children away’ which he wrote on the impetus of an uncle who said he could remember the day clearly. What started out as a personal story resonated with many and two early champions of the song were Australian singer songwriters Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly. They invited Archie to open for them at the Melbourne Concert Hall to a crowd he couldn’t believe, having previously only performed in front of his own community. Again he described that night beautifully when he said he played one song and got nothing from the audience, ‘crickets’. Then he played ‘Took the children away’ and still nothing, just as he was thinking ‘Oh well bugger it’ and was about to walk off stage, someone started clapping, then another and then more. The way he explains it paints the picture so well, ’Have you ever heard rain on a tin roof, pitter patter at first and then a downpour’. That is how the applause appeared to him. He maintains that ‘I didn’t see myself as a voice for my people, I was just telling stories through song’. He has a different dynamic with audiences today, ‘they give me more than I give them sometimes’.
He comes across as a very gentle and kind man and has no malice or anger in his life or lyrics of his songs. He believes that getting angry or raising your fists is futile, ‘I did enough of that when I was drinking and it got me nowhere’. Today he says he prefers ‘to try and reach people’s hearts and minds’.
Archie Roach was named Victorian of The Year in 2020, making him a contender for Australian of The Year. He missed out on that accolade and chuckled at the idea saying he was just happy to be nominated and sit in Canberra amongst other worthy nominees. He was happy to see a lot of young indigenous representatives there and he continues to reach out to the community through the Archie Roach Foundation, a platform for young indigenous artists which helps with grants to get projects off the ground. He also goes into juvenile justice spaces together with Jack Charles, and speaks to the young indigenous incarcerated to tell them their stories.
Archie will be on national tour this year throughout Australia despite his health which doesn’t seem to affect his singing. The fitting way to end this blog would be in Archie’s words when he was asked what message he has for young indigenous people today.
‘Hopefully the young fellas grow up to be those people who will not only speak for their own people but all people of this country’.
‘Be proud, deadly, and strong in whatever you choose to do in life and strive to be excellent. That’s the only advice I can give…and I love ya’s’.Archie’s memoir, ‘Tell me Why’ is available at all good book stores and his final national music tour takes place from May to July 2020.**
**That was the planned tour before Covid 19 threw everyone’s plans out the window but now it appears all of us have to learn a bit of resilience and strength. An opportune time to read a memoir instead!