For the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, the Kneeangar – what white Australians call the Wedge-tailed Eagle – is the creator of the landscape. For the Bundjalung of north-east New South Wales, it is the Gunggayay, or red-bellied black snake.
On the spine of Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why, the Gunggayay encircles the Kneeangar, a logo that encapsulates the Indigenous songwriter’s heritage: his Bundjalung father Archie Senior, and his Gunditjmara mother Nellie Austin.
But Roach, who first came to national attention in 1990 with his celebrated song Took The Children Away and accompanying debut album Charcoal Lane, is also the foster son of Alex and Dulcie Cox: Dad Alex and Mum Dulcie, as he calls them.
The Coxes were told that Archie’s birth parents had died in a house fire. In fact, he had been stolen from them in the late 1950s at Framlingham mission, near Warrnambool. “They were used,” Roach, now 63, says when we meet, as he rests in a Sydney hotel room. “They’re blameless, as far as I’m concerned.”
Alex and Dulcie cherished Archie but, he writes, “there was always a restlessness in me, like a faultline waiting to rupture”. When he was 15, he received a letter from a hitherto unknown sister, Myrtle – one of six siblings – telling him Nellie had died.
The faultline ruptured. Roach writes that before leaving to find his brothers and sisters, Dad Alex – a Glaswegian immigrant who also yearned for his homeland – told him: “Bifay ye leave me and Ma, I jes wanted tae say … Well, we hope ye fin what ye lookin for, Archie.”
He never saw them again.
The title of Tell Me Why – which is being released alongside an album of new songs and re-recorded versions of many of his classics – is both rhetorical and a plea. “It’s trying to come to terms with it happening, rather than denying that it happened or just pushing it aside and thinking, ‘Oh, something happened to me as a kid, but it doesn’t really matter.’
“It was more than that. You want to assure people, or reassure people, that this actually happened. And yourself as well.” Roach frequently slips into the second person, talking about “yourself” when he’s actually referring to himself, preserving a kind of distance.
In his concerts, Roach has taken to introducing Took The Children Away by saying that every time he sings it, he lets a little bit of pain go. One day, he says, that pain will be gone and he will be free.
Similarly, he tells the Guardian that the process of writing Tell Me Why helped heal some of his grief for his estranged, now deceased adoptive parents. “I’d never talked about them before, and I was able to do that, so I was able to let that go.”
He also wanted to acknowledge their pain. “People need to understand that as well, that some of the families, maybe a lot of the families: what they did [was] out of the goodness of their hearts, and out of love.”
Tell Me Why reveals much more of Roach than was previously known. Nearly half the book is taken up with his years of drinking in the parks and pubs and “empties” (vacant buildings) of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, as he reconnected with his surviving family members.
Roach’s street years are recalled with fondness. “There was a real sense of community with those people, and nobody [outside of it] heard that conversation, so I wanted to take people on that journey,” he says.
Naturally, those years also took a terrible toll. Roach suffered from epilepsy as a result of his alcoholism, and there’s a shockingly raw description of a suicide attempt at the end of a bender, after an attempt to dry out. There are stints in hospital, and prison too.
Roach has also survived a stroke, has had half a lung removed due to cancer, and gave up a kidney to his late brother Lawrence. The transplant wasn’t a success.These days, Roach needs a wheelchair to get around, and has a tendency to speak with his eyes closed. But when he fixes them on you, they’re full of light.
Of his attempt on his life, Roach says it’s something he “probably should have mentioned before”, with suicide rates among Aboriginal people, including children, at epidemic levels. “You can reach the darkest point in our life and come back, and come good, even better.”
But Tell Me Why is also a love story for Roach’s partner Ruby Hunter, who died in 2010. Hunter, too, had been stolen; she and Roach referred to each other as “dad” and “mum” respectively.
“It was a term of endearment,” Roach chuckles. But there was also more to it: “It’s good to use those words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, they’re very powerful words when you’re a stolen kid. I suppose they take on deeper meaning when you’re a bit older, as well.”
It was Hunter who kicked Roach up the backside when, on the cusp of his first album and record deal, Roach nearly walked away from music entirely. It was 1990, and Paul Kelly and guitarist Steve Connolly had billed the almost unknown artist on a gig at what is now Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, to a dumbstruck audience.
Roach played just two songs, Beautiful Child and Took The Children Away. The latter song, sung in Roach’s pure, earnest voice, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.”
Both songs were met with complete silence. Then, as he left the stage, the applause began: “It started slowly and then it came down hard. I turned around and held my guitar up in the air, like this” – he raises his arms – “yeah!”
He had first played Took The Children Away in Sydney in 1988, at a Bicentennial protest. On that occasion, too, the crowd had been left stunned and weeping. When he later played the song on a community radio station in Melbourne, the switchboard lit up.
The term “Stolen Generations” didn’t exist in the popular consciousness back then, and Roach, a shy man, was uncomfortable being a spokesman for them. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confesses. “It frightened me a bit.” He told Hunter he’d quit.
Hunter, Roach writes, drew herself up to her full height – which admittedly was not very much – put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?”
Other Indigenous singer-songwriters followed. One, Adam Briggs, recorded a sequel to Took The Children Away, and invited Roach to guest on AB Original’s album, on which Roach spoke of bringing Melbourne to a standstill during land rights marches in the 70s and 80s.
While his songs are quiet – he writes that “empathy was my impetus” – he reserves a place for anger and direct action. “A lot of people are getting upset about young people in the street disrupting traffic, especially these climate protesters,” he says.
“I’m thinking, well, what’s a day’s disruption compared to the total annihilation of the planet? What’s wrong with you people? You need to make a racket! You need to be in their face.”
Before he left the Cox family, Roach worshipped at a Pentecostal church in Melbourne, and even spoke in tongues. He drew comfort from the hymns that informed his own songs, and from Jesus’ words: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.”
Roach eventually reconciled his Christian upbringing with his own heritage. “I found my own culture, which is not so much about religion but it’s about being a spiritual person, in our connection to the earth and the cosmos.”
Around his neck hangs a necklace, at the end of which flies a Wedge-tailed Eagle.
First published in The Guardian, 6 November 2019