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Archie Roach — A remarkable life

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Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach (Photo courtesy of Bill McAuley)

*CONTENT WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and images of deceased people. Archie Roach’s family have given permission for his name and image to be shared.

Indigenous Australian artist Archie Roach, best known as the voice of the Stolen Generations, has died after a long illness. He was 66.

He was born Archibald Wilson Roach on 8 January 1956 in Mooroopna, Victoria – a town that the local Indigenous people named after a bend in the Goulburn River near Shepparton in Central Victoria. He was of mixed Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung) and Bundjalung heritage.

Roach spent his first years at an Aboriginal mission called Rumbalara and in Framlingham, where his mother had been born. At the age of two, government agencies forcibly removed Roach from his parents and placed him and his sisters in an orphanage.

Following two miserable placings in foster care, the lonely and traumatised Roach was happily placed with foster parents Alex and Dulcie Cox. The kindly Scottish couple in Melbourne had children of their own and encouraged Roach’s love of music. Their eldest daughter, Mary, sang church hymns and taught Roach how to play the guitar and keyboards. Meanwhile, Alex played Roach his collection of Scottish albums.

About Alex Cox, Roach said:

“He was a big influence on me — a good influence. I’ll love him to the day I die.”

Tragedy struck when Roach was 15 and found out, via his natural sister, that their mother had just died. Heartbroken and directionless, Roach spent the next 14 years living on the streets and battling alcoholism. During this period, Roach met his future wife – Ruby Hunter, a fellow musician – at a Salvation Army drop-in centre for homeless people in Adelaide.

The couple formed a band called the Altogethers in the late 80s with other Indigenous artists and moved to Melbourne, where Roach wrote his best-known song 'Took The Children Away'The song – which tells the story of the Stolen Generations – was initially performed on a community radio station and on an Indigenous current affairs program.

 

The song caught the attention of Australian music legend Paul Kelly, who asked Roach to open one of his concerts in 1989. Roach’s performance was met with stunned silence, followed by shattering applause.

'Took The Children Away' went on to receive a Human Rights Award for songwriting from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and spearheaded Roach’s first studio album, Charcoal Lane. Released in 1990, with the encouragement of Kelly, Charcoal Lane was certified gold and won two gongs from the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards (ARIA).

Roach toured the globe and triumphantly opened shows for music heavyweights including Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Patti Smith, Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega.

Roach was eventually inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2020. He was also named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2015 as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to music as a singer-songwriter and guitarist and a prominent supporter of social justice.

In 2022, on the shores of Lake Bonney in Barmera, South Australia, a glass mosaic was placed in Roach’s honour. It featured the pelican (the Ngarrindjeri totem of Roach’s wife) and the eagle, Roach’s totem.

In addition to pursuing a successful music career, Roach was a well-known activist who raised awareness about the gross injustices done to First Nations People.

In 1992, Roach spoke publicly about the death of a 19-year-old Indigenous boy in Western Australia called Louis St John Johnson, who was badly beaten in an apparent hate crime. Paramedics arrived at the scene, assumed Johnson’s condition was the result of sniffing petrol and told him to sleep it off. The boy later died from his injuries.

Of Johnson's death, Roach said:

We’ve got to break down these stereotypes. Nobody gave him assistance, nobody helped him and the boy was dying. But because they just saw an Aboriginal boy laying on the road, to me, the thought of my people... is he sniffing petrol, or whatever? All’s [sic] I ask is why? And why can’t we do something to stop anything like this ever happening again in our country?

Roach wrote and released a song called 'Lighthouse' in the boy’s memory.

In general, Roach tried to provide an avenue for healing and reconciliation and to bring to an end the destruction of young Indigenous lives.

Said Roach in a 1992 radio interview:

“I don’t want to see my people destroyed anymore."

In 2013, shortly after receiving his Deadly Award (Lifetime Contribution Award for Healing the Stolen Generations), Roach called upon recently elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott to end the Northern Territory Intervention.

Roach’s health, already weakened by the alcoholism he battled in his younger years, began to deteriorate severely in the early 2000s. After the death of his wife in 2010, Roach suffered a stroke and battled other health problems including lung cancer. 

Roach’s sons Amos and Eban broke the news of their father’s death and gave permission for his image and music to be used by the media in order to keep his legacy alive.

The two sons wrote:

'We are so proud of everything our dad achieved in his remarkable life. He was a healer and unifying force. His music brought people together.'

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a music buff, described Roach as “a brilliant talent” and “a powerful and prolific national truth teller”.

Said Albanese:

'Archie’s music drew from a well of trauma and pain, but it flowed with a beauty and a resonance that moved us all...' 

In InDaily, Indigenous Australian writer Bhiamie Williamson – whose PhD investigates Indigenous men and masculinities – said:

In Uncle Archie, we find the most profound sense of this alternate masculinity.

 

While his songs will play loud and long into the future, beneath his music Uncle Archie gave us something else, something deeply profound but mostly invisible.

Williamson continued:

'He gave us – and all of Australia – an image of an Aboriginal man, tender and humble. An image long denied us.'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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