Archie Roach, who has died aged 66, was an Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter, guitarist and writer, whose most famous song, Took the Children Away, described his own painful life story – and in the process helped to educate Australians about one of the darkest chapters in their history. It won him two Aria awards (Australia’s equivalent of a Grammy) and an International Human Rights Achievement award, and established him as one of Australia’s most distinctive and celebrated performers, who would tour alongside Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Patti Smith.
He was one of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families by government agencies for almost a hundred years, under protection era laws and policies. Aboriginal children were placed in homes and orphanages, or brought up by white foster families. The aim was that they should be assimilated into the white community, reject their heritage and language, and adopt white culture instead. Through his songs and later his powerful 2019 memoir Tell Me Why, Roach revealed the suffering that these policies inflicted on Aboriginal families for generations.
Born in Mooroopna, north Victoria, and brought up in
Framlingham mission near Warrnambool, in south-west Victoria, he was taken from his parents, Nellie Austin and Archie Roach Sr, at the age of “three or four”, along with his two sisters, and raised in Melbourne by a white family, Alex and Dulcie Cox, who had moved to Australia from Scotland. They were told that his parents had died in a house fire and were, he said, “blameless, as far as I’m concerned. They were used.”
Growing up as a member of the Cox family, Roach listened to his foster father’s record collection, which included albums by the Ink Spots, Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson. He went to church, and here he heard a woman playing a Hank Williams song on the guitar. Roach decided that he too would become a guitarist.
His life changed dramatically when he was 15, when he received a letter from a blood sister, Myrtle, then living in Sydney, whom he had never heard of until then. She told him that his real mother, Nellie, had just died, and that he was one of seven siblings. A few months later he left home in a quest to track them down, taking his guitar with him.
He was lucky to survive. It took time for him to find his sister, and as he explained in his memoir, he spent years as an alcoholic, drinking in the parks and “empties” (the vacant buildings) of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. He suffered from epilepsy, spent time in hospital and in prison, charged with vagrancy, and attempted suicide, after a failed bid to dry out. But at 17, at a Salvation Army centre in Adelaide, he met another homeless Indigenous Australian teenager with a similar history to his own, who would change his life.
Ruby Hunter was another child of the stolen generations, and also a musician. They married, and became inseparable partners, but, as the mother of his two children, Hunter threatened to leave unless he stopped drinking. “It turned my life around,” he said.
Roach began working in a homeless shelter while also concentrating on music and songwriting. He wrote Took the Children Away after being encouraged by an uncle to write about his own experiences. He sang it on a community radio station, then in pubs and on TV, and came to the notice of one of Australia’s best-known singer-songwriters, Paul Kelly.
Kelly invited Roach to open for him at Melbourne Concert Hall, where Took the Children Away startled an audience that had never heard of Roach. It was at first greeted by silence, said Roach, “and then the clapping started. It sounded like rain that starts with a pitter-patter and builds up and becomes a downpour. It was the most amazing experience I had ever had.”
Soon afterwards, Roach was offered a recording contract. His first solo album, Charcoal Lane (1990), was produced by Kelly and Steve Connolly, and won Aria awards for best new talent and best Indigenous album. It included Took the Children Away and a powerful song written by Hunter, Down City Streets, which described her time as a homeless alcoholic. This brought her to national attention, and four years later she recorded her own solo album.
Roach went on to record a series of solo albums, including Jamu Dreaming (1993) and Looking for Butter Boy (1997), and provided the soundtrack for the film The Tracker in 2002. In 2008 he sang Took the Children Away, with Hunter joining him on backing vocals, when the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, gave a public apology to the stolen generations.
Roach and Hunter also performed with the Black Arm Band, a political multimedia project involving white and Indigenous performers, who made a powerful appearance at the British Womad festival in 2009. In the same year they both appeared alongside the Yolngu superstar Gurrumul Yunupingu on the compilation album Aboriginal Soul. Roach contributed the song Liyarn Ngarn.
Alongside such high-profile events, he and Hunter spent time teaching music and performing in remote Indigenous communities, and offered an open house to homeless and disadvantaged young people. She died in 2010, the start of a sad and difficult era for Roach. Later that year he suffered a stroke, and the following year – after returning to live performance – he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a lung removed.
Announcing that he “wanted to write about coming through pain in a positive way”, he recorded his 2012 album Into the Bloodstream “with an oxygen bottle on standby”. His new songs included Mulyawongk, a tribute to Hunter, and Old Mission Road, a lament to lost childhood.
In 2016 he released Let Love Rule, and this was followed by Tell Me Why (2019), a companion album to his memoir of the same name. It included reworkings of favourite songs, including Open Up Your Eyes, which was the first song he had ever written, while in rehab in the late 1970s, but had never been recorded before. There was also Rally Round the Drum, a song featuring Kelly, which they had written together in the early 90s, and a favourite Hank Williams weepie, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. It proved to be the most successful album of Roach’s career, and the first to be a top 10 bestseller in Australia.
In 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his “significant service to the performing arts as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and to the community as a spokesman for social justice”.
In October 2020, Roach launched the Archie Roach Stolen Generation Educational Resources: a free package of educational support materials, developed by First Nations curriculum writers, to teach young Australians about Indigenous Australia, cultural identity and the stolen generations.
Roach, whose album of Charcoal Lane re-recordings was released in November 2020, was inducted into the Aria hall of fame later that month. Roach, who lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, was taken from Warrnambool base hospital in an ambulance to accept the award via a broadcast from the nearby Lighthouse theatre. He performed Took the Children Away in the theatre while breathing through a nasal cannula and while an ambulance waited outside.
He is survived by two sons and three foster children.
• Archibald William Roach, singer, songwriter and campaigner, born 8 January 1956; died 30 July 2022
• This article was amended on 31 July 2022 to remove a poorly worded reference to the “so-called stolen generations”. This was intended to introduce the term to a global audience and not in any way question the existence or experience of the stolen generations. It was further amended on 1 August to correct the spelling of Steve Connolly.