WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We were deeply saddened to hear the news about the passing of Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung), Bundjalung Senior Elder, songman and storyteller, Archie Roach on 30 July 2022. Archie was one of the most remarkable Australian songwriters of the past 40 years and much of his work is preserved in the NFSA collection.
Archie was born on 8 January 1956, in Mooroopna, Victoria. At the age of 2, he became a child of the Stolen Generations. He was forcibly removed from his family, placed in foster care and informed that he was an orphan.
He was eventually fostered by a family of Scottish immigrants, Alex and Dulcie Cox, who had a major influence on his interest in music. Alex would play music by artists including Mahalia Jackson, The Ink Spots, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, among others. Archie described these early influences in a 2009 interview with Robbie Thorpe at 3CR:
The eldest Cox daughter, Mary, was also a great influence. They would often sing spiritual music together and she taught him basic keyboard and guitar skills:
When he was a teenager, Archie learned the truth about the forced removal from his parents from Myrtle – a sister he didn’t know he had.
Myrtle broke the news to him that their mother had recently passed away. This life-changing event led Archie to struggle with his identity, resulting in him being homeless for extended periods.
During this period, he met Ruby Hunter – a Ngarrindjeri, Kokatha and Pitjantjatjara woman born on the banks of the Murray River in South Australia.
Also a child of the Stolen Generations, Ruby became a talented singer and songwriter in her own right, although she never sang or played guitar until they met.
Archie credits Ruby with being his saviour and meeting her as marking a turning point in his life:
In the late 1980s, Archie was encouraged to write what became his signature song, 'Took the Children Away', by Uncle Banjo Clarke.
Archie was reluctant at first as he didn’t remember the event because he was so young when it happened. Uncle Banjo responded by saying 'Yeah, but I do', and told Archie about his father and the specific moment when Archie and his sisters were taken. This helped Archie shape the song’s lyrics and it became one of the most honest and moving songs about one of the darkest moments in Australian history.
The song was brought to the attention of Paul Kelly who asked Archie to play it at a concert in Melbourne. In the below interview with Peter Thompson in 2008 for the ABC show Talking Heads, Archie describes how the immediate reaction to the song was silence, but it evolved into rapturous applause which sounded like 'gradual rain':
'Took The Children Away' was included on Archie's debut album, Charcoal Lane (1990), produced by Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly.
The album was certified gold and won 2 ARIA awards in 1991. 'Took The Children Away' also won Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s first Human Rights Award for songwriting, and was added to the NFSA's Sounds of Australia in 2013.
In the years following Charcoal Lane, Archie released 9 more studio albums, including his 1997 album Looking for Butter Boy, which won 3 ARIA Awards.
He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2020. He also won many Deadly Awards and the 2011 Red Ochre Award for his lifetime contribution to Indigenous arts and culture.
In 2019, he released his autobiography, Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music along with the companion album, Tell Me Why.
To coincide with this release, the NFSA honoured Archie’s career with an online curated collection containing rare footage, live recordings, photographs, documents, home movies and excerpts from an online-exclusive interview: Archie Roach Collection.
Ruby Hunter remained a major influence on Archie's life. They were together for more than 35 years until her passing in 2010. Although he was reluctant, it was Ruby who encouraged Archie to make his first album telling him 'it's not all about you, you know. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?'.
Her composition 'Down City Streets' was included on Charcoal Lane. The NFSA curated collection Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter focuses on the lives and work of both artists.
Archie Roach will leave behind a significant legacy: not only from a musical point of view, but also for his activism and social justice awareness. He will be missed.