About Archie Roach

Nobody Owns the Notes
Jeff McMullen 2013

The secret beating heart of Archie Roach’s music is the connection to his country and people. On the Gunditjmara lands in south-west Victoria, near a peaceful place Aboriginal people call Tarerer (Tower Hill) where eagles soar and the sugar gliders, black swans, kangaroos and emus wander the wetlands around a dormant volcano, the songman finds the spirit of place he has searched for most of his life.

Archie’s voice, with a tremor like broken moonlight, washes in across the southern ocean. Along this gentle shore at Killarney there is a midden in the sand dunes scattered with shells and bones, little bits of a story that is older than anyone truly knows. This is Archie’s mother’s country. She was from the Djab Wurrung clan of the Gunditjmara but was born on the Framlingham Aboriginal mission after her people were pushed from their lands. His dad was a Bundjalung man from the Clarence River in northern New South Wales.

The youngest in his family with four sisters and two brothers, Archie was born in 1956 at Mooroopna, just outside of Shepparton. It was when they moved back to the mission where the story began that has found its way into song and moved millions of people around the world to think about what it means to belong to the human family.

Took the Children Away, the foundation stone of Archie’s first album, Charcoal Lane, is quite simply one of the most moving songs ever written. When Archie and most of his sisters and brothers were taken from their mother and father and placed first in a Salvation Army Orphanage before being fostered out to white families they became part of the Stolen Generations, one of the saddest and most misguided chapters in Australian history. Put yourself in the place of a three or four-year old child torn from your mother’s arms and you can understand the trauma that cuts so deep. Uncle Banjo Clarke years later helped Archie remember what had happened. The song is about trying to find your way back to the arms that first held you. The pain, the hole in the heart, never goes away and most of life is spent searching for the way home again…to your people and your country.

When he was very young Archie didn’t even know his real last name. He shuffled through two foster families and experiences that were so disturbing they bring tears to his eyes still. He may never have found his own voice but for moving in with the Cox family who played so many kinds of music, gospel, jazz and especially the soulful American singers like Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole, music that spoke to him. In church one day with his foster sister, Mary, he heard a woman playing guitar and singing an unforgettable Hank Williams song and that, Archie says, made him pick up a guitar and in time become a song writer.

There were lost years on the streets in Sydney, drinking with drifters in the parks and the homeless around open fires, yarning with Aboriginal brothers and sisters he met in the watering holes of Fitzroy, picking grapes in Mildura or punching out a living as a traveling tent boxer. He ended up, once more, in a Salvation Army hostel in Adelaide, memorably named the People’s Palace and it was there at 16 he met the late Ruby Hunter.

A great love, there will never be enough songs to catch all that Archie Roach shared with his muse and traveling companion, his wife and mother of two of his sons, the carer for many others, the relentless human spirit, the healer, the Pelican of the Ngarrindjeri river lands, who knew where they could find serenity and hear the children laughing at play while the country in its glory sang to them and filled their hearts with the simple joys.

In the late ‘80s when Archie and Ruby had formed a band, the late Steve Connolly, a guitarist, heard Archie singing Took the Children Away and was blown away like so many audiences here and around the world for the next 25 years. That’s how Archie came to open a concert for Paul Kelly in Melbourne in 1988, how the pair became friends for all seasons and produced so much memorable music together.

Charcoal Lane won two ARIA awards, gold status in Australia and was acclaimed in US Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums for 1992. Looking back, it may mean more that Archie’s truthful song and the humanity that made Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly want to produce this first album was honoured with a Human Rights Award. This was a first in Australia. Archie humbly came to understand the special power of music to make people listen, think and feel so very deeply.

When David Bridie of Not Drowning Waving produced Archie’s second album, Jamu Dreaming, the stunning quality of the voice and the layers of music on the title track with didgeridoo, clap sticks and the sound of the cockatoos, took us back in time to the days when all of life seemed in balance. Weeping in the Forest shares with us that ethereal, spiritual connection to country and then in other songs Archie explores the relationships with people. Tell Me Why, Reach for You and Walking into Doors are exquisitely honest and open up a place where we can find empathy. We see the struggle for dignity and human decency in all of these lives examined. On this album you can hear and feel Ruby Hunter and other family in the studio. The core band here is brilliant and you can sense the thrill of great players joining in like David Bridie on a variety of keyboards, Joe Geia on didgeridoo, Jen Anderson on violin, and the sweet backing vocals of Tiddas, Lou Bennett, Amy Saunders and Sally Dastey.

Through all of the decades Archie’s fellow musicians have been part of an extended family, connecting strongly with his powerful yearning, the originality of his voice, the rawness of emotion and compelling honesty. He has travelled the world sharing music with others who have brave open hearts like Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Patti Smith and Crowded House.

Malcolm Burn, the Canadian-born musician, producer and sound engineer celebrated for his work with Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, felt there was something life-changing about Archie Roach’s approach to music, the way he lifted songs out of Gunditjmara country. Perhaps this flows from the ease with which Archie takes us back to the childhood innocence he lost so painfully. Looking for Butter Boy, Archie’s third album produced by Burn, draws its title from the nickname given to the little mischief maker who got into the pantry on the mission and covered himself from head to foot in butter. “From then on I was known as Butter Boy,” Archie grins. Those childhood memories flood back to us in Mother’s Heartbeat with another one of those delicate lines, “nothing so sweet as my mother’s heart beat”.

Like all of Archie’s albums, the emotions on Looking for Butter Boy range powerfully, soaring with the eagle on Dancing (with My Spirit) and then coming right down to earth on Louis St John. This sad lament challenges us to remember “a child of grace…a young black man who walked the streets…. took him back to Alice Springs…no one there could tell us where he came from…” and yet still we stare at the space between us in this country.

Archie has raised his voice against the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people, writing songs about lives lost in prison, the isolation of impoverished families and the cruelty and discrimination endured by many. He has gone into the jails to reach out a hand to those he will not forget after so many other black deaths in custody. At Survival Day celebrations, Rock Against Racism concerts and grass roots community events, Archie uses his gifts to lift people up, to feel the redemptive power of the love in his music. Archie’s songs always bring audiences together to think of the hurt we cause one another but also the forgiveness that heals and lets us rise above it all.

Sensual Being, Archie’s fourth album, produced by Paul Kelly and Richard Pleasance in 2002, opens with the alluring sounds of Alien Invasion. Paul Kelly’s tremolo guitar draws us into the warm experience of swimming in the sea but we are left wondering why the “aliens” are prodding and probing or as the singer puts it, “what is the reason, it’s an alien invasion”. This album is full of songs that I have never got out of my head since first hearing them over a decade ago. Just a Little Time, an anthem of hope, later became a major theme in the documentary film, Our Generation (2010) giving voice to Northern Territory Aboriginal elders who oppose the assimilation and crushing control of the Government’s Intervention into their communities. Many Waters Rise is a wonderfully timeless musical stride across the country to the fishing and hunting places. The song was inspired by a wandering trip taken by Archie, Ruby and their sons through a dozen communities on Cape York. Outside Your Window with its unforgettable melody, especially the chorus, shows what a great painter of human portraits this man is, a storyteller with a guitar and a voice quite like no one else.

The bonus songs in this collection are the heartfelt expressions of a man who has always loved his family. In Don’t Grow Up Too Fast Archie sings, “I haven’t always been there…I need you to know I’ve always cared.” I can picture the police at the door in another previously unreleased song, I Don’t Want to Go as Archie pleads, “What did I hurt you for, life would be meaningless without you.” These are deeply personal feelings for Ruby and the children, but in the way of this songwriter the words do us all good.

What more does Archie Roach have to say? After Ruby’s death, he was out in the Bungle Bungles when the end seemed very near. Traveling with another of his great friends, Shane Howard, they were teaching music to the Aboriginal kids at Turkey Creek in the Kimberley. I took a phone call from Shane who described the massive stroke that felled his comrade leaving him unable to walk or talk. The Flying Doctor service carried Archie like an eagle 800 kilometres to Broome then on to Perth. His whole right side was paralysed for a time, including his guitar hand. He wouldn’t quit though and was determined to walk again, but then came the pains in the chest, a diagnosis of early lung cancer and an operation that removed half a lung.

For a time he could barely breathe, let alone sing. Yet after the death of the music legend Uncle Jimmy Little, Archie walked on stage at the Sydney Opera House and gave an unforgettable performance to honour his old friend. A year later he had a guitar case full of new and joyous music that celebrated the miracle of life. On a few more stages we shared sessions of storytelling and song to honour one final time the love of his life, Ruby Hunter.

When you feel all of the heart and soul in these four great albums of music you can understand why the man on the hill at Tarerer feels every day is precious. Use every breath, my brother, because as Ray Charles once told me, “Nobody owns the notes. We just catch them in the palms of our hands, use them and let them fly free.