Archie Roach's story began in 1956 where he was born at Framlingham Mission near Warrnambool in South West Victoria.
At the age of two, he was forcibly removed from his family just like thousands of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were stolen from their families and communities under the Australian Government assimilation policy from the early twentieth century and continued until the 1960s and 70s.
Although Archie’s story is well-known, this is one of the first times that he has spoken about his experiences in detail and about the extreme pain he suffered when his wife died.
“It was pretty harrowing at first, being taken from your family, you’ve got two sisters with you that are very upset crying as well, it doesn’t make you feel much better, and just sent to a strange place," he told NITV's Living Black.
"Going to the city for the first time, and you have buildings with bars on windows, and men in uniform. And that first experience was pretty rough, pretty hard.
"And then growing up in institutions, it was strange at first, and then until you got a little bit used to it. But I mean not used to it, but you became institutionalised I suppose, because I was in the home for a good while.”
Archie was separated from his siblings and placed in an orphanage where he was fostered out to two families.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience as he recalled when I sat down to interview him about his life and career and his memoir “Tell Me Why” released in November last year.
Speaking about the first family, Archie said, “It wasn’t very long. I remember the woman crying a lot, I’m not sure if that had anything to do with me, I hope not. But I don’t think she could cope very well, so I was sent back to the orphanage.”
“And the second home, it was pretty, I’ve only ever talked about it just now, recently and in the book," Archie said.
"It was a pretty bad experience, I can remember a belt that was used on me by this woman. I remarked one time that I loved potato so much, we were sitting down having dinner.
"I said, oh, just as a kid does, I love potato so much I could eat them raw. And this woman, this person from then on, just with each meal fed me raw potatoes.
"And sometimes when I got in trouble, I’d have to sleep in the grain shed at night, just on a sack of grain, maybe with a small blanket or something. So, it was pretty bad, pretty bad.”
Archie was then fostered out to a third family, Alex and Dulcie Cox.
“The Coxs the third family, they were the saviour. They were the beautiful people and showered me with nothing but love," he said.
'My sounding board'
Archie Roach is an incredibly soulful and spiritual man. Just being in his presence you can feel it and even more so when you listen to his music.
His heartfelt lyrics tell stories of life, love, loss and the issues faced by his people.
And the person by his side through it all was his late partner Ruby Hunter.
“She was my sounding board," Archie said.
"She was the first to ever hear any of my songs, very first person to ever hear them. And after you sing one, because just the way she’d look at you and smile and go like that to you (Archie gestures with a thumbs up).
"And that meant, that’s good, or that’s deadly. And just collaborating with her on Ruby, and Ruby’s Story with the Art Orchestra, that was amazing.”
The pair met when they were both homeless teenagers living on the streets in Adelaide.
She too was a member of the Stolen Generations, having been taken from her family when she was eight years old.
They soon became partners in life and in music. Archie was immediately drawn to her.
“She wasn’t afraid of just coming up and talking to me," Archie said.
"I hadn’t talked much to anybody, and she just had this way. And even if I didn’t talk she’d just keep talking to me, telling me about herself, and telling me about things and telling me about the day, what we would do in the day and she just had this personality that endeared you to her.”
While Archie and Ruby went through difficult times, they had an incredible connection and life together. In the 1980’s they formed the band the “Altogethers”, they had two sons and fostered several children, many of whom were family.
“It just felt natural, I just felt like this is what we do as people," Archie said.
"And also because of what we went through, me and Ruby, we certainly didn’t want to see these kids caught up in the system.”
'About our people'
It was Ruby who encouraged Archie to record his first album “Charcoal Lane” after opening a concert for musician Paul Kelly in 1989.
After performing “Beautiful Child” and “Took the Children Away”, Kelly and guitarist Steve Connolly visited Archie and Ruby at the house where they were looking after children who were wards of the state.
Kelly asked Archie if he’d like to record an album with his record company.
At first Archie didn’t want to do it. But it was Ruby who changed his mind.
“When they left, I sat there and I turned to Ruby and I said, I think I won’t do it," Archie said.
"And she says, why? See it’s not really me, just happy singing around the community there, here and there, wherever I can.
"And she put her hands on her hips, and looked at me, and the first thing she said was, you know it’s not all about you Archie Roach!
"I’ll never forget it to this day, as long as I’ll live I’ll never forget it. And I know what she meant.
"When we shine, when we do something excellent and good, and we shine and people see that, its not just about us, it’s about our people, our people shine as well.”
Archie went on to record his Aria Award winning debut album “Charcoal Lane” in 1990 with “Took the Children Away”, which he wrote about being taken away from his family, being the first song off the album.
Both the album and the song were a major success, with the single shining a national spotlight on the Stolen Generations.
“Took the Children Away” won Archie an International Human Rights Achievement Award. The success of the album and the song was something that was unexpected.
“You write a song and you hope that somebody likes it," he said.
"And if you love it, chances are somebody else will. But that’s all. But the reaction that “Took the Children Away” got was amazing.
"I didn’t expect that. It floored me, I thought wow, this is pretty big. And it was a little overwhelming at first, but slowly I sort of came to accept that that’s the song, and that’s what the song means to people.”
'Everything fell down'
Despite Archie’s successes, his life took a dramatic turn with the sudden loss of the love of his life.
Sadly, Ruby suffered a heart attack in February 2010. She was only 54 years old.
You only have to look at Archie’s face to see how heartbroken and devastated he is at the loss of his soulmate.
“It’s like everything fell down, nothing standing anymore," he said.
"Everything just collapsed around me, my life just fell-down, just collapsed around me, my whole life. And it was like you’re just standing in these ruins of what was once your life, and it’s just all in ruin now.
"And you’re looking around at this life in ruin. It was that bad, that’s how hard it was Karla, that’s how bad it was.
"And I just wanted to, I don’t know, just lock myself in my room and not let anybody in. And it was very hard to come out of that but thank God I did eventually.”
Struggling to cope with Ruby’s death, Archie’s health deteriorated. Her death took a massive toll on him. He suffered a major stroke and a year later was diagnosed with cancer.
Consequently, he had half his lung removed.
Reflecting on this tough period of his life, Archie told me it was his spirituality and his belief in music that got him through.
“Spirit, I’m a very spiritual man," he said.
“I remember when I was in that place of despair that I let myself go. I didn’t even dress, I just walked around in my pyjamas for about a couple of weeks, or whatever.
"Didn’t shave, nothing. And I heard her voice say, look in the mirror, and I could hear Ruby’s voice say, 'just take a look at yourself Archie Roach, you look like a mess, look at yourself. Even in your drinking days you never looked this bad, wake up to yourself, go and clean yourself up'. So, I did.
“Music is a great healer for me, I believe in that music has a healing power. Music has this immense capacity to heal, and it can.”
He added, “I know that there’s always a presence, and sometimes being a spiritual person, it’s a little message, or a little sound or something I might hear at night.
"Or something might be turned off that was turned on, turned on that was turned off. Little things like that, that’s the cheekiness, that’s how cheeky she was.”
With Ruby’s words and spirit, a constant presence in his life, Archie found himself again. He turned to his music and wrote his memoir “Tell Me Why” – also recording a companion CD of the same name.
“It’s been important. To finally try and bring people on the journey with you, to almost have some sort of sense at least of what it was like," he said.
"Travelling in someone else’s shoes, a stolen kid’s shoes, to come through all he has and finally come good.”
At 63 years old, Archie shows no signs of slowing down. He was to tour in May this year but due to the COVID-19 crisis, his final national tour, “Tell Me Why” will be rescheduled to later this year.
Archie’s memoir “Tell Me Why”, is now available as an audiobook.
Read by Archie at his kitchen table, at home on Gunditjmara country in southwest Victoria, it also includes Archie singing the songs that inspired his journey. A life well lived.
Archie Roach speaks with Karla Grant on NITV's Living Black sharing his life’s struggles, heartache and the hope that he has for Australia’s future, Monday 13th April, 8.30pm