• We take a look at the achievements of Aboriginal songwriter Archie Roach, who celebrates his birthday today. (AAP)
How this former institutionalised homeless alcoholic became one of Australia's most respected songwriters, storytellers and activists. 61 years ago today a music legend was born.
By
Laura Morelli

8 Jan 2018 - 3:29 PM  UPDATED 8 Jan 2018 - 3:29 PM

From winning Arias and International Human Rights Achievement Awards to being recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours, Archie Roach's musical stardom has skyrocketed over the course of his career - but that's a far cry from where his journey began. 

You may have heard his songs on the radio, or seen him perform live on the stage - but have you ever listened closely to the 61-year-old's lyrics? The meaning behind his music is more than just a melody, it's the story of his identity and of his people's past, present and future.

"They took us away, Snatched from our mother's breast, Said this was for the best," 

These are the words not only from Roach's hit single, Took The Children Away, but the songlines from his past.

Taken away

Born at Framlingham Aboriginal Mission in Warrnambool, in southwestern Victoria, Roach was just a toddler when he was taken from his family as part of the notorious 'Stolen Generations'. Through his music, Roach offers a personal insight into the challenges he faced after being institutionalised, rehoused in two rough orphanages and then fostered.

It wasn't until he was settled in with the Cox family in Melbourne where he discovered his passion for music. His foster father's record collection became Roach's obsession as he uncovered legendary musical influences, such as Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone and Nat King Cole.

From homeless alcoholic to stardom

Once Roach learnt about the Stolen Generations and his very own circumstances of being taken during his childhood, his life took a turn for the worst. The young teenager decided to travel around the country where he found himself homeless on the streets of Sydney and Adelaide, often sleeping rough through periods of alcoholism. However, it was during this dark time when he reflected on his life and the issues around him. He began his work on making music that would change the nation. 

While strumming beats and singing soulful lyrics, Roach met not only his music match but life partner, Ruby Hunter. In the 1980s Roach and Hunter formed the Altogethers band with other Indigenous Australians. The pair, who shared a deep love of music, formed a lifelong bond. The couple had two sons, turned their lives around and went on to foster and raise an extended family of homeless children, while their musical partnership took them onto stages across Australia and the world over.

He recorded his first record, Charcoal Lane, in 1990 with Paul Kelly as producer. The album contained Took the Children Away, a song that spread the struggle of Aboriginal Australia through the airwaves, shedding light on Roach's recollection of the Stolen Generations and being taken from his family.

The track went on to win him two Aria Awards and the first international Human Rights Achievement Award to ever be awarded to a songwriter for a song. It was also in the US Rolling Stone's Top 50 albums for 1992 and achieved gold status in Australia. Since then, Roach has released 10 albums and won five Aria Awards, seven Deadlys and three National Indigenous Music Awards.

In 1992, Archie recorded Jamu Dreaming. Released in 1993, this album was recorded with musical assistance from David Bridie, Tiddas, Paul Kelly, Linda and Vika Bull, Ruby Hunter, Dave Arden and Joe Geia. Jamu Dreaming was nominated for an Aria Award in 1994 and was in Australia's Top 40. Released in July 1997, Looking for Butter Boy was recorded on his traditional land at Port Fairy in South-Western Victoria. This album won three Aria Awards in 1998.

Turning tragedy into song

Archie’s life took a dramatic turn with Ruby’s sudden death. The pair had been together for almost 40 years, since Roach was 16 and she was 15. Later, in 2010, while struggling to cope with the loss of his soul mate, Archie suffered a massive stroke that left him temporarily paralysed along his right side. He was unable to talk, walk or play his guitar. After intensive rehabilitation, Archie briefly returned to the stage. In 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer and was facing an operation to remove half of his lung.

Despite the tragic loss, health issues and heartache, Roach continues to record and perform, sharing strength and inspiration through his music. He tells the stories of his people through powerful music that empowers, educates, inspires and unites. 

In 2013, the same year he released the album Into The Bloodstream, he was also inducted into the NIMA Hall of Fame. Two years later Roach was recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours for his service to the performing arts and as an advocate for social justice.

Roach’s latest album, Let Love Rule was released in 2016 and was written around the definite concept of love after his concern by what he saw happening in the world, particularly in Australia.

“We are closing ourselves off and not letting people in. And not just in the sense of not letting them into the country, but not letting them into our hearts, into our minds. This country was built on people coming here from other countries. That’s what made Australia what it is today,” Archie explained.

The Indigenous folk and roots singer-songwriter's most recent achievement was receiving the Ted Albert Award at the APRA Awards in 2017, where A.B. Original, Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan performed a rousing tribute to Archie with a version of Took the Children Away. Previous winners of the prestigious award include Paul Kelly, Slim Dusty, The Seekers and Cold Chisel.


 

With AAP

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