Content Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images, names and voices of people who have died.
Archie Roach’s family has given permission for his name, image and music to be used.
One day, not too long ago in Australia, black government cars drove to the Framlingham Aboriginal Mission in Victoria. Police and government officials got out of the cars and proceeded to take a 2-year-old aboriginal boy and his sister from their mother, Nellie, a Gunditjmara woman, and father, Archie, a Bundjalung man. To the sound of screaming and wailing, the cars drove away and they took the children away…
“Took the Children Away” is based on the lyrics of a deeply personal song of the same name written by Archie Roach, recalling the time he was taken from his family. This special anniversary edition book celebrates 30 years since that song was released on Archie’s debut album “Charcoal Lane” in 1990.
A gifted storyteller, singer, songwriter and campaigner for the rights of Indigenous Australians, Archie has been called the voice of the Stolen Generation, and his song galvanised a nation and became an anthem for its victims.
The Stolen Generation refers to a time in Australia’s history from 1910 to the 1970s when Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families through government welfare policies.
They were put into institutions and foster homes with non-indigenous families to be educated and integrated into white society. This is very recent history and however well-intentioned this policy might have seemed at the time, the painful scars of disconnection for these proud first-nations people and their extended families reverberate to this day.
Archie spent the first few years after his separation passing through orphanages and foster homes until he settled at age of seven with Alex and Dulcie Cox, who had moved to Melbourne from Scotland. Alex and Dulcie had been told by the government agency that Archie’s biological parents had died in a house fire.
Growing up in the Cox family, Archie was surrounded by music in his foster parent’s home. Dad Cox (as Archie referred to his foster father) had a big music collection including artists like Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson and the Ink Spots. His love of music was further fuelled by Alex’s collection of Scottish music. “He was a big influence on me — a good influence. I’ll love him to the day I die”, Archie recalled in a radio interview with ABC RN in 2018. Archie’s step-sister also taught him keyboard and guitar basics.
At 15 Archie received a letter from one of his biological sisters that he didn’t know he had. She told him that his real mother had passed away. He also found out that he had seven siblings. This revelation sparked an identity crisis for young Archie and soon after he embarked on a journey, taking his guitar with him, to reconnect to family and country. This journey of self-discovery accompanied years of battling alcohol addiction and living on the streets, including stints in jail. Of his time living on the streets, he said “The guitar made me feel safe.”
It was during this time at age 17 he met another homeless Indigenous girl in a Salvation Army Centre. She too was a member of the Stolen Generation. Her name was Ruby Hunter and she would become the love of his life, musical collaborator, wife and mother to their two children. “She just had this cheeky way about her,” Roach recalls. “Not so much making trouble but had this glint in her eye.”
In the late 1980s, Roach formed a band called Altogether playing community halls and functions around Melbourne.
In the opening pages of this book, Archie recalls a conversation with his Uncle Banjo Clarke, an elder who told stories that reconnected him to his mother and his Gunditjmara family.
“Uncle Banjo heard that I was writing songs and asked me to write a song about when I was taken away. I told him that I was only two years old and so did not remember. He looked at me and said, “Yeah, but I do”. He then told me the story about when I was taken that dark day on Framlingham. I thought, this isn’t just about us being taken away, it’s also about who we were taken from. So I wrote the song “Took the Children Away”.
Sometime later, Archie performed “Took the Children Away” on the television show Blackout. That performance caught the attention of the iconic singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and his Messengers‘ bandmate, Steve Connolly, who asked Archie to be the opening act for Paul’s performance at the Melbourne Concert Hall in 1990.
Archie played just two songs, the second of which was “Took The Children Away”.
“When the song finished, there was dead silence,” Paul Kelly recalled. “Archie thought that he bombed and just turned and walked off stage. As he was walking off, the applause started to build and build”. Archie said, “It sounded like rain, you know how rain starts with a pitter-patter, and it builds up, becomes a downpour?”
Shortly after, Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly talked Archie into recording his debut album called “Charcol Lane” with “Took the Children Away” as its first single. The song would win Archie the ARIAs for Best Indigenous Release and Best New Talent, an international Human Rights Achievement Award and a place in the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry. Archie was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2020.
“I’d never recorded an album before “Charcoal Lane” and I wasn’t sure of the process…When I started hearing the rough tracks, they were pretty deadly, and I thought, “It’s taking a little while but it’s all coming together.” I was happy.”
It was the start of a lifelong friendship with Paul and Steve and a hugely successful musical career that would take Archie’s music to the world. Archie is held in high regard with a diverse mix of musicians and has shared the stage and friendships with people like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, Crowded House, Billy Bragg and Suzanne Vega.
If you’d like to hear more stories about Archie’s musical journey straight from the horse’s mouth, I’d encourage you to check out his Youtube channel.
This book itself is simple in design and illustration, but the story and its message are powerful and important. It is Illustrated by Archie’s late wife Ruby Hunter, who passed away from a heart attack aged 54 in 2010. Ruby was not only Archie’s life partner but his musical collaborator and a talented singer and songwriter in her own right. In 1994, Ruby became the first Indigenous Australian woman to record a solo rock album, and the first Aboriginal woman signed to a major record label when she released her debut album “Thoughts Within”.
Ruby’s illustrations have a childlike quality that speaks to the innocence of the victims who were “snatched from their mother’s breast”. Her colour palette is bright, vibrant and salient and reflects the traumatic imprint of this event as seen through the eyes of a child.
This special edition also includes forward pages with a tribute to Ruby, along with Archie’s conversation with Uncle Banjo which prompted the writing of “Took the Children Away”. It also includes historical photographs of Archie and his family, including a painting of Ruby’s dreaming spirit, the pelican. Unfortunately, Ruby passed away before the first edition of this book was published and this was the last project Ruby and Archie worked on together.
Archie wrote, “Her Dreaming spirit, the Pelican, returned to the Milky Way, that mighty river of stars in the sky, where she remains to this day. When I look at the night sky there is always one star that seems to twinkle brighter than the rest and I know that’s her!”
Archie’s dreaming spirit (the wedge-tailed eagle) joined Ruby’s on 30th July 2022, when Archie passed away following many years of health problems where he suffered a stroke, was diagnosed with lung cancer, had a lung removed and was also diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Archie once said “Songs outlive people”, which is certainly true of “Take the Children Away”.
Despite its tragic subject matter, Archie considered “Took the Children Away” a song of healing. He never imagined that people from other countries would relate to this song and he didn’t realise that other children around the world had been taken away from their families as well. “When I sing that song, it’s like I let a little bit of that go,” he told Radio National in 2016. “Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be singing it and it’ll all go and I am going to be free.”
Finally, in 2008, an important step in the healing process came in the form of a formal apology to the Stolen Generations from PM Kevin Rudd. It was an emotional moment for Archie.
“For years I’d walked around with this burden, not just of being removed, but of who I was removed from, my mother and father,” he said. “It was like I was carrying them around with me for years, on my back. When the apology came it was like the weight shifted and I felt light. To me it was like they were set free — dad to return as a red-bellied black snake, and mum to fly away as the wedge-tailed eagle.”
At the end of the song, healing is found when Archie and the children return to their land.
“One sweet day all the children came back…Back where their hearts grow strong…Back where they all belong…Back where they understand…Back to their mother’s land…The children come back…Yes I came back.”
We can all be forever grateful that Archie Roach came back and told his story to the world.
The irony of this story is, that had Archie not been taken away and exposed to the love of music through his foster family and experienced those painful life lessons, would Archie’s life path have led to this song, this book, this prodigious life of pain, loss, hope, love, salvation and achievement that has touched and inspired so many people?
Thankfully, we will never have to ponder a world without Archie Roach and his music. But here’s a rhetorical question, if Archie himself had a choice, would he have chosen a life as a world-renowned musician at the expense of broken cultural and spiritual ties with his family and community?..