ARIA Hall of Fame – Archie Roach AM

The Australian Music Vault is proud to honour the 2020 ARIA Hall of Fame inductee, Founding Patron of the Australian Music Vault, Archie Roach AM.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article may contain names and images of people who have died.

Archie Roach holds a singular place in Australian cultural life. A much loved and revered singer-songwriter, storyteller and social justice advocate, Archie has taken Australians on a profound journey of discovery and healing over the past 30 years. His iconic song, ‘Took The Children Away’ opened the world’s eyes to the ongoing inter-generational trauma suffered by the Stolen Generations, and in turn provided a bridge for generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to move towards reconciliation.

Archie Roach - Took The Children Away

During his long career, Archie has shared stages with some of the world’s most famous performers including Joan Armatrading CBE, Tracy Chapman, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Crowded House, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Vega and Patti Smith. He has also been a generous collaborator, mentor and inspiration for artists from across the country including Ruby Hunter, Paul Kelly AO, Paul Grabowsky AO, David Bridie, Shane Howard AM, Uncle Jack Charles, Bart Willoughby, Kev Carmody, Bunna Laurie, Tiddas, Jimmy Barnes, Briggs, Jessie Lloyd and Emma Donovan.

A proud Gunditjmara Bundjalung man, Archie Roach was born in Mooroopna, Victoria in 1956. As a child he lived with his mother Nellie, father Archie and six siblings on the Framlingham Mission near Warrnambool before he was forcibly removed from his home in line with a government policy of assimilation. Three-year-old Archie was placed in a series of foster homes before settling with the Cox family in Melbourne. There he found happiness and stability with a family that believed that they were taking in an orphaned child. The Cox family loved music. ‘Dad Alex’ introduced Archie to the music of Elvis, Billy Holiday and Mahalia Jackson, and bought him his first guitar while his foster sister Mary taught him the fundamentals of keyboard.

A sudden revelation would bring this chapter of Archie’s life to an abrupt end when he received a letter from a sister he did not know informing him that his mother had passed away. Devastated and confused, 15-year-old Archie left home in search of family and community. A decade of homelessness and alcoholism would follow as he moved around the country searching for answers. Although times were often tough, something special also happened during this period when Archie met his soul-mate, Ngarrindjeri woman Ruby Hunter in a chance meeting on his first day in Adelaide. Like Archie, Ruby was one of the Stolen Generations and together the pair would build a new life together grounded by family, community and music.

Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach

Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach backstage at Sing Sing concert, 1996
Photo by Tim Webster

With Ruby as his anchor, Archie began to play music again for friends and family. Most of the songs he played were covers of folk and country songs but Ruby encouraged him to write songs from his own experience. One of his earliest songs, ‘Open Up Your Eyes’, written when he was in rehab in St Kilda in the mid-1970s, set him on a new path and earned him the title of National Songwriter of the Year at the National Aboriginal Country Music Festival.

As Archie and Ruby built a family made up of their own children and children in need of fostering and care, Archie continued to piece together his past. One particular return visit to Framlingham Mission was to prove pivotal in his career; Uncle Banjo Clarke suggested that Archie try writing a song about how they took all the children away. That night over tea and damper Archie started putting lyrics and chords together.

Archie still remembers the first time he sang the song in public. It was in 1988. A year given over to the bicentennial celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet in and the beginning of European occupation in Australia. To protest the planned re-enactment of this painful moment, Indigenous community members and activists gathered at La Perouse on Botany Bay. During a particularly tense moment among the crowd, young Archie took to the stage to sing one of his songs.

I remember singing it. I got up and sang it. The guitar wasn't plugged in but it didn't matter. I remember after I finished singing that song and looked up there was just silence and a hush. A hush descended upon the mob. And nobody said anything and I saw men, grown men with their heads bowed, shoulders heaving. Old people came up to me later on and said “Um, who'd you write that song about?” And I said “Oh, it was about me.” And they were way older than me, you know? And they said “Well that's what happened to us. That's our story.” And it was quite powerful for me.

A similar thing happened when he performed the song as an unknown support act to Paul Kelly on the stage of the Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall). His performance was met first with stunned silence, followed by rapturous applause.

Archie had reached a turning point and throughout the rest of his career he would continue to draw on his own life experiences and those of his community to craft deeply personal and affecting songs that give voice to the subjects often too painful to discuss including domestic violence, death in custody and dislocation from land and culture.

Album cover for Charcoal Lane

Album cover for Charcoal Lane featuring original artwork by Pierre Baroni

With the encouragement of Paul Kelly and fellow musician Steve Connolly, Archie soon found himself in the unfamiliar surroundings of a recording studio laying down tracks for his debut album, Charcoal Lane, named after the laneway in Fitzroy where he first found a sense of community sitting around drinking and yarning with friends. The album which included ‘Took The Children Away’, ‘Beautiful Child’, and the Ruby Hunter-penned ‘Down City Streets’ proved to be a landmark release earning Archie two ARIA Awards for Best Indigenous Release and Best New Talent in 1991.

Archie Roach and Paul Kelly at the ARIA Awards

Archie Roach and Paul Kelly at ARIA Awards, 1991
Photo by Tony Mott

When the record was picked up internationally, Archie went on to tour performing before audiences across Europe, North America and Canada. His poignant performances of ‘Took The Children Away’ resonated on many levels with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences and in 1992 Archie became the first person to ever win an International Human Rights Achievement Award for a song.

In 1993, he released his second studio album, Jamu Dreaming working with producer David Bridie and collaborators Paul Kelly, Ruby Hunter, Tiddas, Vika and Linda Bull, Dave Arden, and Joe Geia, and in 1997 he followed up with the more experimental Looking For Butter Boy for which he won the ARIA Award for Best Indigenous Release.

Archie Roach - 'Looking for Butter Boy'

Album cover for Looking for Butter Boy featuring original artwork by Pierre Baroni

Throughout the 2000s, Archie spread his wings creatively working across many disciplines. He worked with Indigenous dance company Bangarra, on Rolf de Heer’s film Tracker (2002) and the documentary Liyarn Ngarn (2007) where he appeared alongside Patrick Dodson and English actor Pete Postlethwaite. Other artistic highlights of the decade include his collaboration with Ruby Hunter, Paul Grabowsky AO and the Australian Art Orchestra on Ruby’s Story, as well as his involvement with the Black Arm Band, Australia’s premiere Indigenous music theatre company.

Meanwhile the power of his best known song, ‘Took The Children Away’ continued to reverberate throughout the decades in venues large and small including at Melbourne’s Federation Square where Archie gave a powerful performance on the day that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd AC delivered a National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. It was an emotional moment and a reminder of the way in which one song can change the hearts and minds of a nation.

In 2010, Archie’s life took a dramatic turn with the sudden loss of his beloved Ruby. Bowed by grief, Archie began to suffer his own severe health problems including a stroke and a cancer diagnosis. Again he turned to music pouring his sorrow, loss and love into his sixth album Into The Bloodstream (2012) then followed it up with the gospel inflected Let Love Rule (2017).

Music is a great healer for me. I believe that music has a healing power. Music has this immense capacity to heal, and it can.

Archie Roach

Archie Roach
Photo by Phil Nitchie

As Archie continued to release and tour new material, the release of a re-imagined 25th anniversary Charcoal Lane in 2015 underlined the profound influence his work has had and continues to have on a whole new generation of Australian artists including Courtney Barnett, Briggs, Gurrumul, Leah Flanagan, Dan Sultan, Emma Donovan, Radical Son and Dewayne Everettsmith.

In 2020,the 30th anniversary of ‘Took The Children Away’, Archie took his message to an even newer generation collaborating with Culture Is Life to re-release the children’s book of the same name illustrated by Ruby Hunter as well as a suite of Stolen Generation resources for schools.

Archie’s outstanding contributions to music and social justice have been celebrated by many different bodies including the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll, the National Indigenous Music Awards Hall of Fame, the APRA Ted Albert Award and the Dreamtime Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013, he received a Deadly Award for Lifetime Contribution to Healing the Stolen Generation, and his song ‘Took The Children Away’ was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry. Archie was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2015 and named Victorian Australian of the Year in 2020.

Archie continues his work for the community through the Archie Roach Foundation which was established in 2014 to nurture meaningful and potentially life-changing opportunities for First Nations artists and those caught up in the youth justice system.

His autobiography, Tell Me Why with an accompanying album and a three disc live album, The Concert Collection 2012-2018, were released in 2019.

For more information about Archie Roach

Archie Roach website

Archie Roach YouTube

Archie Roach Foundation

Discover more about Ruby Hunter

Watch Archie Roach's Long Play Series interview with Namila Benson


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