Archie Roach (1956- ) is a much loved Australian Indigenous singer-songwriter. This is his memoir, read by himself in the kitchen of his home in Port Fairy – a fishing and now tourist/sea-changer village in Western Victoria – with his guitar in his hands. Port Fairy for him is home country, his mother was from nearby Framlingham Mission – his father was an Indigenous (Bandjalung) man from the NSW North Coast – and as he researches his life he slowly becomes closer to the people there, the Gunditjmara. A number of clans were aggregated at Framlingham, though Archie doesn’t look back that far, and many of them were then further concentrated at Lake Tyers, in eastern Victoria. Archie mentions that the World Champion boxer and country singer, Lionel Rose, famously from Lake Tyers, is his cousin.
One dark day on Framlingham/Come and don’t give a damn/My mother cried go get their dad/He came running, fighting mad
Mother’s tears were falling down/Dad shaped up and stood his ground/He said, “You touch my kids and you fight me”/And they took us from our family
Took us away/They took us away/Snatched from our mother’s breast/Said this was for the best/Took us awayArchie Roach, They Took the Children Away
Archie was about five. He was first fostered to an abusive family, whom he refuses to describe and then to the Coxes, Scottish migrants in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs. The Coxes had children of their own and then two or three Aboriginal boys. Archie was happy there and shy and studious at school. The Coxes’ youngest daughter, Mabel I think, taught him to play the piano and Mr Cox bought him a Hammond organ and taught him to sing Highland ballads.
But. At age 14 or 15 Archie received a letter at school telling him he had sisters, then living in Sydney, and his mother who had coincidentally been living in a nearby eastern Melbourne suburb, had just died, his father having died some years earlier. This jibed with occasional memories he had of a different life, in the bush, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Unable to deal with his feelings he turned first to the Pentecostal church he had already been attending, separately from the Coxes, and then struck out on his own altogether. He never saw or contacted his adoptive mother and father again.
The ugly truth at the heart of this story is that many Aboriginal people form communities around the excessive consumption of alcohol. This was true for Archie, for all his family when he finally caught up with them, and for his life partner Ruby Hunter.
Archie sets off to locate the sister who had written the letter; is derailed for a couple of years when a ride in a (unbeknownst to him) stolen car leads to his first stint in jail and then two years probation; gets to the boarding house address on the letter only to find his sister has moved on; and finally has his name recognised in an inner Sydney pub and is introduced to three of his sisters. He learns the story of his and their forced removal into ‘care’, about his wider family including his brothers, and his childhood nickname, Butterboy.
You will have to read this yourselves to get all the dates and places, but he lives with his sisters, the older ones move back south, lives by begging and odd jobs, lives for the next flagon or beer, leaves his youngest sister to fend for herself and moves back south to Melbourne, lives in tiny housing commission flats with his sisters and their partners and children, sings occasionally, country standards, joins up with his brother two or three years older, drinks, lives rough in the (inner suburban) Fitzroy area, specifically ‘Charcoal Lane’ near the old briquette works where I was living too at that time, in a tiny terrace house on Alfred Cres., and never saw a Black face.
Side by side/We walk along/To the end of Gertrude Street/Then we topple in muster for a quart of wine
Thick or thin/Right or wrong/In the cold or in the heat/We cross over Smith Street to the end of the line
And we laugh and sing/And do anything/To take away the pain/Trying to keep it down as it first went round/In Charcoal LaneArchie Roach, Charcoal Lane
I forget the order now, but there’s a stint in Sharman’s boxing troupe touring eastern Victoria, where his oldest brother and I think his father had fought before him, more jail, moves on to Adelaide, finds a room with the Salvos and, still a teenager, meets Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman, from the lower Murray, east of Adelaide. Slowly forms a relationship with her that was to last until her death more than 30 years later in 2010.
Eventually Archie is persuaded to sing in public, in a talent quest, is heard by Paul Kelly and the result is his first albumn, Charcoal Lane and the rest of course is history. Archie and Ruby have children. Ruby begins to write and perform too. They battle alcoholism. Finally dry out for good at Indigenous clinics in Melbourne.
This is wonderful story, told with heart and enormous honesty by a wonderful man. Read it.
Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/Crawled out of the bushes early morn/Used newspapers to keep me warm, then I’d have to score a drink/Calm my nerves, help me to think
Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb/In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun/It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to beRuby Hunter, Down City Streets
Archie Roach, Tell Me Why, Simon & Schuster, 2019. 384pp. Audiobook, 2020, read by Archie Roach. 10 hours
see also: Archie Roach Tell Me Why tour (here)