November 2019

Arts & Letters

A way home: Archie Roach

By Anwen Crawford

Archie Roach. Photograph by Adrian Cook

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

“I’d thought it had just been me and my brothers and sisters who’d been taken,” writes Archie Roach in Tell Me Why (Simon & Schuster), his newly published memoir. The singer-songwriter is recalling one of the first times that he performed his best-known song, “Took the Children Away”, in public. It was 1988, and Roach and his partner, the late musician and artist Ruby Hunter, had travelled with their two sons to La Perouse – “the only place in Sydney where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have continuously lived from before 1788 to this day” – in order to join protests against the bicentennial celebrations. It was January 25, the day before the 200th anniversary of British invasion, and at the protest camp Hunter encouraged Roach to get onstage and play a song, in an effort to diffuse a growing argument among the crowd over the route of the next day’s march. “I didn’t sing to impress or to educate,” Roach writes, of his performance that day. “I sang to honour.”

There are few songs that feel necessary in the world, but “Took the Children Away” is among them. A narrative of the Stolen Generations, of whom Roach is one, “Took the Children Away” is a folk song in the deepest sense: it speaks with and of the marginalised and dispossessed, and gives voice to an experience that has rarely been acknowledged by the powerful. It is a haunting and haunted song, with its simple rhymes (“Breaking their mother’s heart / Tearing us all apart”) and repeating melody that echo in the mind like the song itself rings with this nation’s history. But when Roach played it that January day, he had little notion that the story he was honouring was other people’s story, too. “People from all across this Aboriginal nation came up to me,” he remembers, to tell him that they had also been taken. “Young people and old people and city folk like me, and old tribal people from out in the desert and up north.” It was then that he realised that the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families “had been happening across the country for decades”.

So far as Roach was aware when he was young, his family were the Coxes: church-going Mum Dulcie with her silver hair, and Dad Alex, who would sing Scottish ballads in an unfading Glasgow brogue. “I was a happy child,” Roach writes in Tell Me Why. He never wondered why he and the other Coxes looked different from each other until a school friend asked why they were white and he was black. “Archie, ye nae black,” Alex told him when he relayed the question. “What ye are is Ab’rig’nal. You and ye paepal are the furst paepal on this land.”

But the implications of his identity would not begin to sink in for young Archie until one day, when he was around 14 years old, a letter arrived for him at his school. It was addressed to “Archie Roach”, and Roach knew that this was him, even though “Archie Cox had been my name for as long as I could remember, or so I thought”. The letter had been sent by his older sister, Myrtle, who was living in Glebe, in inner Sydney, and it informed Roach that his mother had recently passed away, and that his father was dead too. “I folded up the letter,” he writes, “tucked it into my school bag and dragged my feet to a classroom that was no longer mine.”

Myrtle’s letter brought the people who had hovered at the edges of Roach’s memory back into his full consciousness. The fact was that he had been taken from his biological parents, Nellie Austin and Archie Roach senior, in 1959, at the age of three, while the family were living on the Framlingham Aboriginal mission in south-western Victoria. Framlingham was not far from the custodial lands of Nellie Austin’s people, the Gunditjmara, while Roach senior was a Bundjalung man, from northern coastal country in New South Wales. When Roach was taken from Framlingham, so were his four sisters, Alma, Myrtle, Gladys and Diana, and his brother, Lawrence. Only the eldest child, Johnny, known as Horse, was left on the mission. “He was a big fella,” Roach writes, “and when the government came and took us they assumed Horse was an adult and left him alone.”

When Roach confronted the Coxes with his letter, they told him that they had been told his family were dead, killed “in a house fire in Dandenong”, in Melbourne. He shortly thereafter quit school and made his way, bit by bit, to Sydney, from where Myrtle had written to him. But she was no longer living there. In Sydney, Roach began to find some consolation in alcohol and in the company of the “parkies” whom he quickly befriended. It wasn’t an easy life, especially not when the cops were quick to round up any blackfella out on the street and have them sent to Long Bay prison for a fortnight (“never more, never less”) on vagrancy charges.

But Roach found kindness, too, on the streets, and as he drifted between Sydney and Melbourne he would also, eventually, find his siblings. He met Hunter, his life partner, in Adelaide, at a homeless shelter, and it is Hunter’s song, “Down City Streets”, with its cascading vocal melody and spry tempo, that best captures both the precariousness and the camaraderie of those years in their life together. The song would appear on Roach’s first album, Charcoal Lane (1990), along with “Took the Children Away”. And it was Hunter who prodded Roach to make Charcoal Lane, despite his doubts, just like she encouraged him to take the microphone that day in La Perouse.

Now, more than 30 years since that pivotal performance, Roach has chosen “Took the Children Away” to open his new album, also called Tell Me Why. It’s a double album, effectively, totalling 18 tracks, the bulk of which are re-recordings of songs that have appeared across his eight previous studio recordings. “Down City Streets” is here, as is the soul-inflected “Little by Little”, which first appeared on Into the Bloodstream (2012), and the hymn-like “Lighthouse (Song for Two Mothers)”, from Journey (2007). Roach calls the latter “the song that I’m most proud of”, and he wrote it for “all the mothers whose hearts were broken all across this country because of its child separation policy”. These are Aboriginal mothers, firstly, but also “the adoptive mothers who have realised that all the care and love they give their child may never give them peace of mind”. Roach never saw Mum Dulcie or Dad Alex again after he left them as a teenager, but he has honoured them with two new songs on Tell Me Why: “One for Each Person, And One for the Pot” and “The Jetty Song”, the latter of which harks back to those Scottish airs he heard sung throughout his childhood.

There are also two cover versions: one of Hank Williams’ country classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, and the other of the gospel song “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, with guest vocals by Emma Donovan. Country music has long been important to Roach, and in his memoir he names Charley Pride, alongside Williams, as a source of inspiration and solace. But he has also admired the folk protest music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and especially Woody Guthrie. As for “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, it’s a testament to both Roach’s Christian faith and to what he calls “my place of belonging in the ancient ways”. He once doubted that the two forms of spirituality could be syncretised, “but I don’t anymore”.

Taken together, the record and memoir are a summation of Roach’s life and art, though “summation” feels too neat and dry a word for his adventurous, sometimes harrowing experiences, and for the breadth of his accomplishments. But you won’t find a rollcall of his awards and honours – five ARIAs, a Deadly Award and membership of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the performing arts and for contributions to social justice, among other gongs – in Tell Me Why. The book, like his songwriting, takes the outsider’s viewpoint, just as Guthrie once did. Along with the drinkers of Belmore Park and Charcoal Lane are the fruit-pickers and abattoir workers and factory men that Roach has, from time to time, laboured alongside. All of Roach’s living has gone into his music, and he does not flinch from any of it.

His voice is weathered now; Roach himself calls it “starkly damaged”. The stroke he suffered in 2010 and the lung cancer he survived in 2011 have both taken their toll, as have the decades during which he drank and smoked with a self-destructive edge, though those years are long behind him. The melodies are still there, but charred at the edges, as if they’ve sat long over a fire before Roach reached in and plucked them out again. But the rasp in his voice brings with it an undeniable gravitas, as does his phrasing, which is slow and purposeful, each note thought through, reached for and set down in its place. There’s a lot of space in this recording.

On this record Roach has teamed up again with musician Paul Grabowsky; the two first worked together, along with Hunter, on the show Ruby’s Story, which toured Australia in the early 2000s. Grabowsky has arranged and produced all the tracks on Tell Me Why, and his piano playing, precise and intermittently coloured by jazz notes, is present throughout.

At first I wasn’t sure if they were called for, these pretty piano lines that are sometimes in danger of being merely decorative – especially when Roach’s singing voice can hold a listener in its grip with no assistance needed. But in the end the album’s space and measuredness convinces. “Oh, I’m going back again”, Roach sings on “Nopun Kurongk”, which was first written for Ruby’s Story, “To that place where they took me from / To my home”. Hunter, too, was taken as a child, and this song is of her country, Ngarrindjeri country, by the Murray River in South Australia. Grabowsky’s piano is joined by a string section that dips and calls like birds in the morning; over its nearly eight-minute length the song achieves a hard-won peacefulness.

“Empathy was my impetus,” Roach writes, of his early forays into songwriting, and that empathy is still tangible. As anyone who has watched him play live will know, he can command a room with the authority of his stillness and the assiduousness of his listening. “Is anybody listening to that child?” he sings on “Small Child”, on behalf of “all those stolen and scattered”, as he puts it in the dedication to his book, “who found their way home, and to those who never did”. The song is sorrowful, rich and emphatic. “Listen deeply,” Roach advises us. “That’s where you find the truth. It’s all there in the wind.”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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