‘Butcher Paper Texta Blackboard and Chalk: A Songbook and CD’ by Ruby Hunter & Archie Roach
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In 1997, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter took a band and three of their kids on a tour of the indigenous communities of Cape York Peninsula, hosting songwriting workshops in schools. They began in Aurukun, and descended down the Cape via Pormpuraaw, Kowanyama, Coen and Lockhart. A film crew accompanied the family. They went home with 12 songs, a few of which Ruby worked up for her solo albums. But the documentary never happened, and the rest of the songs languished.
Six years later, Ruby recorded a demo, but interest was scant. Another demo recording took place with Paul Grabowsky, the jazz musician, in 2008, but still the financial backers stayed away. In the meantime Ruby wrote more songs, often as not inspired by her grandchildren, and performed them on and off stage.
Ruby Hunter died suddenly, at 54, in February 2010. “Rube” had been Archie’s muse for decades. They’d met as teenagers on the streets; the story of her extracting him from a life of alcoholic squalor is well known. But the early hard living could not be undone. Not long after his wife died, Roach had a stroke, then was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was touch and go for a while but, he says, music got him through.
Someone thought to hand him Ruby’s demos. Musician friends were called upon. Songs were rescued, Ruby’s voice preserved where possible, even when the original tracks existed only on a scratchy cassette taped in their living room. Another song, about a little girl who loses a treasured stone, had never been recorded at all. It survived only in the memory of the girl, who sings it on the album as Ruby used to sing it to her.
Archie lent his vocals to many of the tracks, still firing minus half a lung. The final flourish was a two-day recording session with Ruby’s young grandchildren – the “Riverland Grannies”. The result is raw and exuberant. The songs are about hunting pigs, mustering cattle and spearing crays. It’s a kids’ album, but it’s not the Wiggles.
Though there’s no mention of it on the book cover, the flipside of the CD is a DVD. The 15-year-old footage of Ruby composing simple “songs of life and hope” with the children of Cape York grabs you by the throat. How happy she looked in Cape York, how she shone. “When I look back, this was Ruby’s trip,” says Archie on camera. “She fell in love with the kids.” In each community Ruby would illustrate the new songs with drawings, reproduced in the book. “I didn’t know you could draw that much,” Archie says. “Oh, you’d be surprised what I can do, Archie Roach,” says Ruby.
John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.