Archie Roach, who lived and sang the Aboriginal blues, dies at 66

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Archie Roach, who lived and sang the Aboriginal blues, dies at 66
His song “Took the Children Away,” inspired by his childhood, shook Australians into confronting a grim era when their government tore apart Aboriginal families.

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- One day in 1970, Archie Cox’s high school English class in Melbourne, Australia, was interrupted by a voice from the intercom: “Could Archibald William Roach come to the office?”

An uncanny feeling took hold of 14-year-old Archie: This name, which he had no recollection of, he somehow knew to be his own.

A letter to Archibald William Roach awaited him. It announced that Nellie Austin, a name he had never heard, was his mother, and that she had just died. His father and namesake was dead, too, the letter said. It was signed by Myrtle Evans, who identified herself as his sister.

Within a year, Archie had dropped out of school, abandoned Dulcie and Alex Cox — who, he realized, were his foster parents — and embarked on a quest to discover who he really was.

He spent years without a home. He was imprisoned on burglary charges twice. He tried to kill himself. All the while, he kept bumping into revelations about his family and why he had been taken away from them.

When he left home, there was not a name for what Archie was. But today people like him are considered part of the Stolen Generations — Indigenous Australians seized from their families as children to be assimilated into white society.

This history is known thanks in no small part to Roach, who turned his wayward life into the material for a career as one of Australia’s best-loved folk singers, and who in doing so dramatized the plight of his people.

He died July 30 at a hospital in Warrnambool, a city in southeastern Australia, his sons Amos and Eban announced on his website. He was 66.

The announcement did not cite the cause, but Roach had lung cancer and emphysema, requiring him to perform while breathing through a nasal cannula.

His rise to prominence began in the late 1980s and early ’90s, on the strength in particular of one autobiographical song: “Took the Children Away.” He performed it at Melbourne Concert Hall when he opened for popular Australian rock singer Paul Kelly.

“There was this stunned silence; he thought he’d bombed,” Kelly told The Guardian for a 2020 article about the song’s impact. “Then this wave of applause grew and grew. I’d never heard anything like it.”

Kelly was a producer of Roach’s first album, “Charcoal Lane,” released in 1990. When the two toured together, Aboriginal audience members approached Roach, saying they, too, had been taken from their families.

“He started to realize it was a much broader story,” Kelly said.

The song became a national hit. “When he sings ‘Took the Children Away,’ or any of the tracks on ‘Charcoal Lane,’ it cuts through like great blues should,” Rolling Stone Australia wrote in 1990. “The experience becomes universal.”

In a 2020 article commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Charcoal Lane,” Rolling Stone Australia credited “Took the Children Away” with helping to inspire a landmark 1997 government report estimating that as many as 1 in 3 Indigenous children were seized from their families between 1910 and 1970.

Fourteen more albums followed “Charcoal Lane,” ranging in style from blues to gospel, while Roach’s wife, Ruby Hunter, gained renown of her own as a musical partner of Roach’s, and as a songwriter in her own right.

Aboriginal singer and songwriter Emma Donovan told The Guardian that when she was growing up, “we’d see Archie and Ruby on TV.”

“They were our royalty, our king and queen,” she said.

Archibald William Roach was born in the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve, in southwestern Australia, on Jan. 8, 1956. When he was older, he recovered a memory of a tall man with long limbs and curly hair reaching toward him while police officers were grabbing him. That man, he realized, was Archibald, his father.

He was raised largely by the Coxes. The implications of the fact that he was Black and that the Coxes were white dawned on Archie only gradually.

His foster father, who was Scottish, longed for his homeland, and at night tears came to his eyes as he sang ballads around the family’s organ. “For years I thought I missed Scotland,” Roach wrote in “Tell Me Why,” his 2019 memoir. “I took great joy in sharing those songs with Dad Alex, because I wanted to be close to him, and I also wanted to understand the power that the songs had over him.”

Cox gave Archie his first guitar. After Archie left home at 15, he never saw his foster parents again.

He took a circuitous path to the return address on the letter he had received, in Sydney; by the time he arrived, his sister had left, without informing her neighbors of her next destination.

A homeless one-armed Aboriginal man named Albert took care of Archie, showing him where in Sydney to sleep free of charge and teaching him how to panhandle. Archie began drinking with his new Aboriginal friends from morning till night.

“I look back now and see the darkness that would have touched every moment unless we numbed it with beer and port and sherry,” he wrote in his memoir. “We were part of an obliterated culture.”

He built a life from openness to chance and the coincidences that ensued. Archie found his family by running into one of his sisters at a bar in Sydney. On a coin flip, he decided to visit the South Australia city of Adelaide, where he met Hunter, who would become the love of his life. She, too, was Aboriginal and had been taken from her parents.

Chance also granted Roach knowledge about his past. In 2013, he stumbled across the first photographs he had ever seen of his father as a boy, and of his grandmother.

He learned that there were dangers in trying to recover tradition. He and his peers sought approval from elders before going on dates with other Aboriginal people, to ensure that they were not related. Taking up the old profession of his father and brother, Roach became an itinerant boxer. He realized in the middle of one bout that he was fighting his own first cousin.

At other times he earned a living by picking grapes, pushing sheep up kill runs at an abattoir and doing metalwork at a foundry. He often lost jobs in a blur of drunkenness. The binges induced seizures. During one bender, overcome with despair at his prospects as a father and husband, he tried hanging himself with a belt. After more than a decade of patience, Hunter left him.

Roach was jolted into sobriety. He found work as a health counselor at a rehab center in Melbourne. He rejoined Hunter and their two sons, and he threw himself into writing songs.

“Like my daddy before me/ I set ’em up and knock ’em down/ Like my brother before me/ I’m weaving in your town,” he wrote in “Rally Round the Drum,” a song from the early 1990s about his boxing days.

“Have you got two bob?/ Can you gimme a job?” he wrote in the 1997 song “Beggar Man.”

“At 15 I left my foster home/ Looking for the people I call my own/ But all I found was pain and strife/ And nothing else but an empty life,” he wrote in “Open Up Your Eyes,” which was not released until 2019.

Complete information about his survivors was not available, but in addition to his sons, Roach and Hunter unofficially adopted 15 to 20 children. The impetus in some cases was simply encountering a young person on the street looking “a little worse for wear,” he told Australian newspaper The Age in 2002.

Hunter died suddenly in 2010 at the family home in Gunditjmara country, in southeast Australia, the ancestral land of Roach’s mother.

As “Took the Children Away” grew in fame, even to the point of overshadowing Roach’s other work, he was often asked whether he got sick of singing it.

“I say, ‘Never,’” he told ABC News Australia in 2019. “It’s a healing for me. Each time I sing it, you let some of it go.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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