Archie Roach, famous Aboriginal singer, dies at 66

When Archie Roach was 3 or 4 years old, social workers came to take him away from his family in southeastern Australia. His aunt tried to scare them away with a gun, and his cousins ​​tried to hide him under a pile of leaves. His mother wept; his father came running from the fields. His memories of that moment were scattered, he said, but eventually he was carried on the shoulder of a policeman, said he was going on a picnic.

Mr. Roach was among the “Stolen Generations”, the tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian children who were forcibly removed from their homes under government assimilation policies that lasted until the 1970s. he battled alcoholism and homelessness, sleeping on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne while trying to reconnect with family members. He spent time in jail and in hospitals, suffering from seizures that doctors linked to his alcohol abuse, and he attempted suicide by trying to dry himself off.

The music helped ease his pain. “It gave me something to fill the void left by drinking,” he told People magazine. With his throaty baritone, smooth guitar playing and poignant lyrics about family, love and politics, he became one of Australia’s most renowned singer-songwriters, bringing the Stolen Generations to life. through its first single, the 1990 ballad “Took the Children Away”.

“This story is true, this story is true; I wouldn’t lie to you,” he sang. “Like the promises they broke and how they locked us in like sheep. read, write and pray.

“Then they took the kids away.”

Mr Roach was 66 when he died on July 30 at a hospital in Warrnambool, Victoria, on the south east coast of Australia. His death was announced in a statement by his sons, Amos and Eban, who gave permission to use his name and likeness. (For cultural reasons, many Aboriginal Australians do not use a person’s name and image after death.) They said Mr Roach suffered from a “long illness” – he admitted to battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – but did not cite a specific cause.

“Our country has lost a brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth-teller,” said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. said on Twitter. “Archie’s music tapped into a well of trauma and pain, but flowed with a beauty and resonance that moved us all.”

An elder of the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung peoples, Mr. Roach was a leading advocate for Indigenous communities, working with Indigenous children in juvenile detention centers and developing educational resources to help students learn about the Stolen Generations. The mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was “as much a part of Australian history as Captain Cook and Burke and Wills”, he told the Guardian in 2020, referring to explorers British who helped map the continent.

“We still have to own the whole history of this country and be honest and brave,” he said. “It’s the only way forward.”

Mr. Roach drew inspiration from American country, soul and gospel in his music, releasing 10 studio albums and opening for artists including Billy Bragg, Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Paul Simon. But he remained best known for ‘Took the Children Away’, which he wrote in the late 1980s, a few years after historian Peter Read began using the term ‘Stolen Generations’ to describe forced removal. indigenous children in their homes.

‘It’s a landmark,’ wrote the Melbourne Age in 1990, shortly before the release of Mr Roach’s debut album, ‘Charcoal Lane’. “Regardless of its place in Aboriginal history, it is a great Australian folk song, perhaps the greatest since ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. ”

When Mr. Roach started playing the song, the audience was stunned. “I had goosebumps and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck as he sang it, to dead silence from the audience,” singer-songwriter Paul Kelly told The Guardian, recalling a performance by Mr. Roach in 1989 in Melbourne. “He finished the song and there was still dead silence. He just stood there for a minute, and there was still silence.

“Archie thought he bombed, everyone hated it, so he just turned around and started walking offstage. And as he walked away, that applause started going up and up and up. … I had never seen it before – people were so amazed at the end of the song that it took them a while to gather and clap.

Five years after Mr Roach recorded the song, the Australian government launched a national inquiry into the Stolen Generations. He revealed that from 1910 to 1970, as many as 1 in 3 Indigenous children – many of them of mixed white and Indigenous ancestry – were removed from their communities and taken to churches and foster homes, assuming that a Western education was more humane. Many children were victims of physical and sexual abuse, according to the survey, which likened forced removal policies to genocide.

After more than a decade of campaigning by Mr Roach and other campaigners, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal government apology in 2008, acknowledging what he described as ‘a great stain on the soul of the nation”. Last year, the Australian government agreed to pay around $280 million in reparations to survivors taken from their families.

“For years I walked around with this burden, not just of being removed, but of who I was removed from: my mother and my father,” Mr Roach told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 2018. “It felt like I was carrying them with me for years, on my back. When the apologies came, it was like the weight had changed and I felt light. For me, it was as if they had been set free – dad returned as a black, red-bellied serpent and mum flew away as a wedge-tailed eagle,” a central figure in Aboriginal mythology.

Archibald William Roach was born in the rural town of Mooroopna, Victoria, on January 8, 1956. One of seven children, he was living in Framlingham, not far from where he died, when he and some of his siblings were taken to a foster home. Officials attempted to westernize her, including attempting to comb her hair flat, and falsely told her that her parents had died in a house fire.

Mr Roach was adopted by Scottish immigrants in Melbourne, whom he described as kind and loving. But “there was always a restlessness inside me, like a fault line waiting to break,” he recalls. Around the age of 14, he received a letter from a little-known sister, Myrtle, telling him that their mother had died the previous week. He left home and spent the next 14 years searching for information about his past, eventually reuniting with two sisters and other relatives.

Homeless as a teenager in Sydney, he met Ruby Hunter, another Aboriginal musician who had also been taken from her family. They became musical partners, got married and called each other “dad” and “mom”, terms of endearment they used in the absence of their biological parents.

By the late 1980s they had formed a band, the Altogethers, and moved to Melbourne, where Mr Roach’s performance on a local TV show caught the eye of guitarist Steve Connolly, who played with the band. Kelly, the Messengers. Together, Kelly and Connolly produced Mr. Roach’s debut album, which won two ARIA Awards, the equivalent of an Australian Grammy.

Mr. Roach said he was initially uncomfortable with the spotlight, and for a time considered quitting music. He continued after receiving encouragement from Hunter, who told him, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many Blackfellas do you expect to get for recording an album?

His latest records include ‘Jamu Dreaming’ (1993), ‘Looking for Butter Boy’ (1997) and ‘Tell Me Why’ (2019), which accompany his memoir of the same name. When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel what was supposed to be his final concert tour, he sat down at his kitchen table and re-recorded songs from his debut album, releasing the new version as “The Songs of Charcoal Lane” (2020).

Mr Roach was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 and inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2020. Survivor information was not immediately available.

Hunter died of a heart attack in 2010 aged 54, and Mr Roach was still mourning his loss when he suffered a stroke which left him temporarily paralyzed on his right side. The following year, he was diagnosed with cancer which caused him to lose half a lung. Still, he continued to play, aided by supplemental oxygen.

He often said that every time he played “Took the Children Away” he let go of a little pain. “I still feel the pain, every day,” he told Time magazine. “Sometimes it threatens to swallow me up. But I’m not going to let it destroy me. Eventually, he said, that pain would go away for good.

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