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Legendary Aboriginal Australian singer and Maar nation elder, Archie Roach (1956-2022), was in an orphanage and foster care as a child. 

A member of the Stolen Generations, Archie Roach was born at Mooroopna, a small rural town north of Melbourne. Shortly after, he was relocated with his family to the Framlingham Aboriginal mission in Warrnambool, Victoria.

When he was two or three years of age, Archie was removed from his parents, separated from his siblings, and taken to a Salvation Army orphanage. 

Archie was in multiple foster care placements before he and his brother Noel were placed with recent migrants from Scotland, Alex and Dulcie Cox, and their daughter Mary. He was particularly fond of his foster father who introduced the boy to traditional Scottish ballads. Mary introduced a love of making music.

Archie did not notice he was Aboriginal and his foster parents were white until he was eleven years old. When a school friend questioned Archie about this distinction, Alex explained to him, ‘‘What ye are is Ab’rig’nal. You and ye paepal are the first people on this land. E’vrybody else hae are bloon awe Pommies. Yer remember tha.’’

When Archie was fifteen he received a letter from his older sister, Myrtle, about the death of his mother. Furious at having been taken from his family, he left home in search of them in Sydney. He never met his parents but did reunite with two sisters and extended family. 

As a homeless teenager, Archie met his life partner, Ngarrindjeri woman Ruby Hunter, at a shelter in Adelaide.

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 around the world (BC Local News). 

Archie Roach recorded his first album, Charcoal Lane, in 1990, produced by Paul Kelly and featuring the now classic song, “Took the Children Away.” Charcoal Lane was in the US Rolling Stone’s Top 50 in 1992 and won a Human Rights Award and two Aria Awards. In 2015, the 25th anniversary of this important album was celebrated with the release of an anniversary edition. 

In 2019, Archie Roach published his memoir, Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and my Music. Each chapter of the memoir begins with song lyrics. A companion album, recorded with pianist Paul Grabowsky, includes many new recordings of songs from Charcoal Lane and was released in 2020. Archie Roach was awarded a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Prize for Indigenous Writing for this work in 2020.

Archie Roach received a Deadly Award for a Lifetime Contribution to Healing the Stolen Generations in 2013. In 2015, he was honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to music and as a supporter of social justice. He was presented with the Ted Albert Award at the 2017 APRAs for his contributions to Australian music. In 2020, he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame and won the Victorian Australian of the Year.

The Archie Roach Foundation, established in 2014, aims to support First Nations artists, including, “young people heading down the wrong track just like Archie was, to support them to be the best that they can be.” The Indigenous Wellbeing program draws on arts practices to connect young people to their culture and identity.

I hope to be a signpost for others, to walk alongside and empower them to tell their story through the arts to point them in a deadly direction; in particular young people within the youth justice system. – Archie Roach

The loving relationship between Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter is the subject of a documentary released in March 2022. Philippa Bateman’s Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow includes songs the couple performed together, in addition to interviews and images of the Coorong, Hunter’s country.

Archie Roach was surrounded by friends and family when he passed on 30 July 2022 after a prolonged illness. In a tribute to the singer and songwriter, prime minister Anthony Albanese wrote:

“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” (Guardian).

References: 

“About the Foundation.” Archie Roach, 2019. http://www.archieroach.com/about-the-foundation

“Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter.” Archie’s Kitchen Table Yarns, 2019. http://www.archieroach.com/  

“Archie Roach by Peter Hudson.” National Portrait Gallery, 2008. https://www.portrait.gov.au/portraits/2010.141/archie-roach 

“Archie Roach wins major songwriting award.” SBS News, 17 March 2017. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/archie-roach-wins-major-songwriting-award 

Boulton, Martin. “Hope and music: how Archie Roach overcame his demons.” Sydney Morning Herald. 20 Dec 2019. https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/hope-and-music-how-archie-roach-overcame-his-demons-20191216-p53kgb.html

Dow, Steve. “Archie Roach on meeting, loving and losing Ruby Hunter: ‘She had this glint in her eye’.” The Guardian, 16 February 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/feb/16/archie-roach-on-meeting-loving-and-losing-ruby-hunter-she-had-this-glint-in-her-eye

“Framlingham Aboriginal Station (1861-1890).” Find & Connect, 2022. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/vic/biogs/E000929b.htm

“Indigenous Australian Archie Roach to perform at Bella Coola Music Fest.” BC Local News, 8 May 2017. https://www.bclocalnews.com/news/indigenous-australian-archie-roach-to-perform-at-bella-coola-music-fest/  

Ingham, Darby. “Archie Roach wins literary award for memoir.” National Indigenous Times, 2 Feb 2021. https://www.nit.com.au/archie-roach-wins-literary-award-for-memoir/#:~:text=The%20literary%20award%20win%20follows,My%20Life%20and%20My%20Music.

Knaus, Christopher. “‘Big tree down’: Archie Roach remembered as a truth-teller, healer and First Nations champion.” The Guardian, 31 July 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/jul/31/big-tree-down-archie-roach-remembered-as-a-truth-teller-healer-and-first-nations-champion

Morris, Samantha. “25 Years of Charcoal Lane: Archie Roach Reflects. Blank Street Press, 2015.  https://blankstreetpress.com.au/25-years-of-charcoal-lane-archie-roach-reflects/  

Ross, Monique and Borschmann, Gregg.  “From stolen child to Indigenous leaders: Archie Roach sings the songs that signpost his life.” ABC News, 12 July 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-12/archie-roach-a-life-in-song/9957168 

Ruben, Emma. “Celebrated Aboriginal musician and songwriter Archie Roach dies aged 66.” National Indigenous Times, July 30 2022. https://www.nit.com.au/breaking-celebrated-aboriginal-musician-and-songwriter-archie-roach-dies-aged-66/

Image available here.