Tell Me Why, Archie Roach

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

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 away

Archie 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 Lane

Archie 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 be

Ruby Hunter, Down City Streets

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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)

27 thoughts on “Tell Me Why, Archie Roach

      • That’s the magic of the music platform. I do literary playlists when I read books with a lot of music references.

        I’ve only listened to a couple of songs but I like his music. Will spread the word!

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      • I don’t Spotify. For a long time I accumulated music on memory sticks, but now that I have a constant stream of audiobooks I don’t listen to much music at all. Not even at home. Right now I’ve been sitting at my desk in silence for 8 hours. I have no idea why that is.

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  1. I read this book last year … another one from my brother. It is such a good and strong read. And reading about Ruby Hunter was so sad. I still have to read HER book, but Roach’s love for her, and the role she played in his life make her early death so extra sad (says she in her best grammar). His story conveys so much about the things Indigenous Australians’ lives doesn’t it.

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    • People dying is always sad, but gee they abused their bodies, or their livers anyway. I hadn’t realised Archie was so incapacitated too. I forget how many years ago it was that I saw him perform, maybe 5 or 6. I can’t think of another book so searingly honest about the level of drinking and consequent poverty of some Indigenous people. Other authors mention it, Lukashenko for instance, but in this book it was front and centre.

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    • We (whites) know second or third hand the damage that alcohol causes for Indigenous communities here and in North America, and elsewhere too probably. But this is the first time I can think of that an Indigenous person discusses so frankly the centrality of excessive alcohol consumption in their life and in their idea of community.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On this topic, there’s a very informative and revealing slim volume by Harold Johnson (a Cree fiction writer and lawyer) on alcohol and Indigenous society, and alcohol and the broader society in relationship to Indigenous communities. Both the books I review at this link are from small indie presses in Canada, so likely difficult/impossible for you to access, but I’ve quoted at length and some of the stat’s are worth considering if you’re interested: http://www.buriedinprint.com/winter-child-and-firewater-a-perfect-pairing/

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  2. Like Emma I went to Spotify to find his music, and I love it – thank you for introducing me to his work! His book sounds excellent as well, if a very difficult read. I’m glad he has been able to recover from his alcohol misuse issues and fund a way through.

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    • I’m glad you found his music. I saw him a few years ago at an outdoor but relatively intimate venue in Perth (the Quarry Amphitheatre) and he was just gripping. The book isn’t a difficult read, and is certainly much more than a list of people, events, locations which some biographies can be, it is a story well constructed and well told, but of course it is difficult in the sense of some of the scrapes and sadnesses we must bear with him.

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  3. I’m currently in a place where I can’t listen to music, so I’ll check him out at home. It seems like Roach’s story is almost representation of the stolen children in general. I just wrote on my blog, in response to you, about one person not speaking for a whole group, but I wonder if in this case Roach’s experiences are dang near universal. It sounds familiar.

    This book does sound beautiful and full of heart — thanks for noting that. Otherwise, I may have been cautious about whether this book would be sad and dreary and too much.

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    • What is really sad is that so many Indigenous memoirs begin with a Stolen Generations story. Roach doesn’t claim to speak for anybody else. but yes, in his life before he became a performer, he is an Indigenous everyman.
      He doesn’t say so but I’m sure he is aware that he has long been looked up to by the Indigenous community and that they see his songs as representing their experience as well as his.
      The generalization which you can draw from that is one person doesn’t (shouldn’t) say I speak for my community, the community says he/she speaks for us.
      Melanie/GTL’s post where she was discussing who speaks for whom, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda LeDuc is here –
      https://grabthelapels.com/2021/07/13/disfigured/

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  4. I wonder if Spotify is rechecking and checking its algorithm to see why everyone is suddenly listening to his music?! LOL (I’m a Google gal myself, so clearly I’ll be playing under the radar there, all on my lonesome. *giggles*)

    This sounds like it might invite some readers into his story who might be unlikely to read a biography by another Indigenous person, choosing a musician? All to the good, I’m sure.

    Your post also reminds me, when you say that you never saw a Black face in the neighbourhood where you grew up, that Indigenous people around the world can be described even in those most basic terms very differently, another reminder of just how diverse these communities truly are (here, more often brown or red).

    This might seem like a strange comment to make at the end of this post here, but it’s partly inspired by another conversation we have unfolding, on the other end of this tin-can-telephone, about how important it is to understand just how much we don’t know or need to un-learn and re-learn about the world and its inhabitants.

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    • I’m sure it’s true of other countries too, but people and bands who if they were American rather than Australian might be Joan Armatrading or Three Dog Night say, instead stay relatively unknown. I find it intensely frustrating that being famous in the US is the same as being famous around the world.

      I was thinking of writing that this is an Indigenous memoir rather than a celebrity memoir but hopefully Archie being well known will help it sell – it was in the ‘merch’ for the Tell Me Why tour (which I don’t remember. I wonder if Covid meant it was called off).

      I have mentioned quite often that I never saw a Black face growing up in country Victoria, nor as I say here, in Fitzroy (inner Melbourne) where I lived in the early 1970s. Perhaps I wasn’t looking out for them, But I have only known three or four Aboriginal people to speak to in my whole life. Strangely enough, the one exception was Milly. We thought for many years her great grandmother was Aboriginal and one of our daughters was counted as Indigenous in the NGO where she worked. It was only a few years ago that various cousins were able to establish that the great grandmother was in fact Chinese (the daughter of a Chinese merchant’s concubine/second wife).

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s true…I figure nobody would have heard of Celine Dion if her theme song hadn’t attached itself to the Titanic summer blockbuster movie. (And I’m not saying she’s the quintessential talent from the land currently called Canada, but she’s surely a diva whose fame would have been confined to Montreal otherwise, I’m guessing. *winks*)

        That’s an interesting “origin story” and a reminder that questions of belonging and ethnicity are often more complicated than they appear on the surface.

        Thanks for the link you included below; I’m pleased to call attention to those two writers’ work–even if it would most likely mean reading via epub for most of the people reading your comments.

        Liked by 1 person

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