December 2012 – January 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Butcher Paper Texta Blackboard and Chalk: A Songbook and CD’ by Ruby Hunter & Archie Roach

By John van Tiggelen

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

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

‘Butcher Paper Texta Blackboard and Chalk: A Songbook and CD’ by Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, One Day Hill; $25.00
Cover: December 2012 – January 2013

December 2012 – January 2013

From the front page

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Locking back down

Victoria’s woes are a warning for the whole country

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Weal of fortune

Rebuilding the economy means government investment, but not all public spending is equal

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars

In This Issue

Image from ‘The Last Diggers’ by Ross Coulthart. Courtesy of HarperCollins.

Lest We Inflate

Why do Australians lust for heroic war stories?

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Richard Neville & Charles Sobhraj

Ballarat–Colac Road

John McTernan, Parliament House, Canberra, 20 April 2012. © Penny Bradfield/Fairfax Syndication

The Strategist

Julia Gillard’s hard-nosed director of communications

More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘Contempt’

The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

Re-watching the films of the most successful screen actor of the 20th century

Image of Ziggy Ramo

The heat of a moment: Ziggy Ramo’s ‘Black Thoughts’

A debut hip-hop album that calls for a reckoning with Indigenous sovereignty and invites the listener to respond

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

More in Noted

‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli

‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

The Palestinian author’s haunting novel about an atrocity committed by Israeli soldiers in 1949

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

An unsettling near-future tale of soldiers hunting a mythic bird by “the Tasmanian Wordsworth”

Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

Cover of ‘The End of October’

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

Read on

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

Image of Patrick Allington's ‘Rise & Shine’

Shelf pity: ‘Rise & Shine’

Patrick Allington’s fable of a world in which perpetual war is staged to fuel compassion is too straightforward for its ambitions

Image of then treasurer Scott Morrison handing Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal during Question Time, February 9, 2017.

Coal cursed

The fossil-fuel lobby could not have created the climate wars so easily without the preceding culture wars

Image of library shelves

Learning difficulties

The Coalition’s political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom