For most Australians, the first time they had heard of the name Archie Roach, can be traced back to the early 90s, when the emerging Australian roots and folk singer songwriter released his heart wrenching ballad Took The Children Away. Interestingly, for many of us, Archie’s emotive and powerful song was the first time we had heard about the “Stolen Generations” of young Aboriginal children, even babies, that were forcibly taken from their parents and placed in non-indigenous homes. Even more incredible was the fact that Took The Children Away was inspired by Archie’s own story. Archie was three, when he and his two sisters were taken away from their parents in the late 1950s and placed in a Salvation Army orphanage, before eventually being separated and fostered by white families.
Archie fondly remembers, after some initial difficulties with his first two foster families, being taken in by a loving Scottish couple living in Melbourne when he was six. For years he considered himself as Alex and Dulcie Cox’s son until one day a friend asked Archie why his parents were white and he was black. When Archie started asking questions he was simply told that his birth parents had died. It was the beginning of a monumental shift of how he saw himself. Moreover when he eventually learnt another ‘truth’ via a life-changing letter from an older sister, that their birth mother had only just recently died, it pushed Archie over the edge. With a heavy heart, Archie left the two most important people in his life “Dad Alex” and “Mum Dulcie” with their blessing, ending up on the streets of Sydney in the early 70s in search of his older sister. When he eventually found her, he would learn that he had another older sister and brother eerily back in Melbourne. Archie would also learn through his big sister and brother back in Melbourne how traumatic it was for their parents when the authorities came to take them away. The additional revelation of the news of Archie’s father’s death in custody in a prison cell was also for Archie too much to bear.
With much of Archie’s youth set against his determination to find his place in the world as a young Aboriginal man, for some fourteen years he travelled along the east coast of Australia, working various jobs and more often than not living on the street in a drunken haze. But two things would come to save him, the first being his love of music, especially the guitar which his foster sister had introduced to him; and secondly, when he met Ruby Hunter, a young aboriginal woman and guitar player, who was incidentally also a child of the ‘Stolen Generations’. The two would eventually become inseparable and in the late 80s they would form their own band, the Altogethers.
It was 1988 that Archie found himself in a good place. Having beaten alcohol addiction and with his soulmate besides him, Archie wrote his first significant song, Took The Children Away. He preformed the song on community radio and in various other settings. It wasn’t long after in 1990 that Archie caught the attention of an even larger audience, when Paul Kelly’s guitarist Steve Connolly, who heard Archie’s song on a local television network, insisted that Archie open for Paul Kelly on his tour. At the same time, with the encouragement of Kelly and Hunter, Archie would also begin work on recording his debut album Charcoal Lane. Archie’s debut would go on to achieve gold sales in Australia and earn Archie two ARIAs. Importantly, the album’s lead single Took The Children Away would receive the prestigious Human Rights Achievement Award, the first time ever a songwriter would be honoured for that award in 1991.
Almost overnight it seemed Archie had singlehandedly increased public attention on the Stolen Generations to the point that we could no longer ignore it. He become not only an agent of change and an advocate for Indigenous rights but also to some degree a national hero. (On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly to the Stolen Generations, to the relief of Archie and a nation.)
Over the preceding decades, Archie would visit missions and hospitals and prisons working with young Aboriginal offenders. He also continued to record albums primary about autobiographical subjects and childhood memories, people and places and the plight of Indigenous Australians. While fame as a singer songwriter took him around the world, he even opened for Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and Tracy Chapman, to name a few, he always managed to find his way home to Ruby and their children. When he lost his dear Ruby in 2010, it almost broke his heart but somehow through his personal tragedy found the strength to carry on. Interestingly, he dedicated his sixth studio album Into The Bloodstream, in 2012, to Ruby and the importance of, as Archie once said, “about getting on with life.”
More recently, now 63 and ailing, due to complications of chronic lung disease, Archie is still singing his praises to the love of his life. Archie runs Ruby’s Foundation aimed at trying to improve the lives and opportunities of young Indigenous people through the arts and culture.
And so, while he continues to mentor and sing while he still can, Archie has managed to release late this year his expansive new album, Tell Me Why, a companion to his highly-anticipated memoir, of the same name. In short, a lot like the book, Archie’s acclaimed new album chronicles his extraordinary life and in the process reminding us yet again of the wonderful healing power of music.