Archie Roach, the Indigenous Australian songwriter whose celebrated song Took The Children Away brought national attention to the story of the Stolen Generations, has died aged 66.
Roach died at Warrnambool Base hospital after a long illness, surrounded by his family and loved ones.
“We are heartbroken to announce the passing of Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung), Bundjalung Senior Elder, songman and storyteller Archie Roach,” his sons Amos and Eban Roach announced in a statement on behalf of the Roach family.
“We thank all the staff who have cared for Archie over the past month. Archie wanted all of his many fans to know how much he loves you for supporting him along the way. 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.”
On Saturday night tributes began pouring in for the songman on social media.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said: “Tonight we mourn the passing of Archie Roach. Our country has lost a brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth teller.
“Archie’s music drew from a well of trauma and pain, but it flowed with a beauty and a resonance that moved us all. We grieve for his death, we honour his life and we hold to the hope that his words, his music and his indomitable spirit will live on to guide us and inspire us.”
Took The Children Away featured on Roach’s debut album Charcoal Lane, released in 1990. The song launched, defined and to a degree inevitably overshadowed an immensely rich artistic career, which included nine studio albums, a soundtrack (The Tracker, from 2002) and numerous live albums and compilations. In November 2019 Roach’s album Tell Me Why – a companion piece to his autobiography – became his first to reach the national top 10.
Roach was also a political force and leader, who fought tirelessly to draw attention to the history of, and inequity facing, Indigenous Australians. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 for his services to music and social justice, and was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame in 2020. He was gravely ill at the time of his induction, and performed with his medical team and an ambulance on standby.
Roach was born in the central Victorian town of Mooroopna on 8 January 1956, the youngest of seven siblings. His mother was Nellie Austin, a Gunditjmara woman from south-west Victoria, and his father was Archie Roach Sr, a Bundjalung man from the north coast of New South Wales.
At the age of four, while living on Austin’s ancestral lands in Framlingham, Roach and two of his sisters were taken by force from their parents and separated by welfare officers. He had two foster placements before being settled with Scottish immigrants, Alex and Dulcie Cox, in Melbourne.
The Coxes had been told their adopted son’s parents had died in a house fire. Roach later described them as “blameless, as far as I’m concerned. They were used.” While at school, he briefly attended a Pentecostal church, where he learned hymns, and he was also introduced to the music of Hank Williams. Both would have a strong influence on his gospel-tinged work.
At 15 he received a letter from another sister, Myrtle, informing him that his birth mother had died. Roach set off in search of the rest of his siblings, never seeing his adoptive parents again. During a spell in Adelaide, while at the Salvation Army People’s Palace, he met Ruby Hunter, another teenage member of the Stolen Generations.
Roach and Hunter became inseparable and had two sons together. But their lives over the next 15 years were blighted by alcoholism and homelessness as they drifted between Victoria and South Australia. Roach suffered from severe epilepsy and survived one suicide attempt. Soon after, Hunter briefly left him. This proved the catalyst for Roach to turn his life around.
In his memoir, Roach wrote that “empathy was my impetus”. He brought all of it to his songwriting, which was beginning to blossom. He first performed Took The Children Away at a Bicentenary protest in Sydney on 25 January 1988. “People were stunned,” he wrote. “Women were crying. Men had their heads bowed, shoulders heaving.”
Roach was stunned, too, unaware that the story of his family was shared by so many in the audience. He was invited to play on ABC Radio National, and then on the television show Blackout. The late Steve Connolly, guitarist with Paul Kelly’s band, saw this performance and Kelly subsequently invited Roach to open for him at the Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall).
Roach’s two-song set opening for Kelly had an equally profound impact on the mostly white audience. After performing Took The Children Away, the hall was silent, then, as Roach began to walk off, the full house erupted in applause. Kelly and Connolly later produced Charcoal Lane, which also featured Hunter’s song Down City Streets.
The album went gold, with Roach winning ARIA awards for best new talent and best Indigenous release. Took The Children Away won an International Human Rights Achievement award in 1992. On 13 February 2008 he performed the song in Federation Square, Melbourne, after the then-prime minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered a national apology to the Stolen Generations.
Roach had suffered from ill health for the last decade. After Hunter’s death in 2010 he had a stroke. Though he recovered well enough to return to live performance only six months later, he was soon diagnosed with lung cancer, and had half a lung removed. He had already given up a kidney in an unsuccessful transplant to one of his brothers.
In October 2020 he launched the Archie Roach Stolen Generation Educational Resources, a free package of educational support materials developed by First Nations curriculum writers to teach young Australians about Indigenous Australia, cultural identity and the Stolen Generations. A re-recorded version of Charcoal Lane was released on 13 November 2020.
First published in the Guardian, 30 July 2022