The Big Issue : Edition 551
PHOTO BY WAYNE QUILLIAM LETTER TO MY YOUNGER SELF » ARCHIE ROACH Charcol Lane, ARCHIE ROACH LOOKS BACK ON A LIFE OF LOVE AND LOSS, OF CITY AND COUNTRY – AND HOW MUSIC BINDS IT ALL TOGETHER. I WAS 14 when I left my foster parents, the Coxes, and went looking for my Aboriginal family. I didn’t really know what was going on – all the politics around it and the government’s stance on things back then. But I got a letter at the high school I was going to. Apparently one of my sisters was sort of keeping track of where I was, and when my real mum, my Aboriginal mum, passed away, she got in touch. I was sitting in class and over the loud speaker came: “Would Archibald William Roach please come to the office.” I knew my first name was Archibald, but that was the first time I heard my birth name. I opened the letter and the very first thing she said was “Dear Bubba, Mum passed away a week ago.” It was pretty confusing. I went home to the Coxes and said, “Look, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to find this person and find out what’s going on and who I am.” And that’s what started me on that journey. I had three different foster families, the first two didn’t work out. With the second family, the only thing I talk about was that it was a farm. I loved the farm and the animals – they gave me a lot of company, a lot of joy when things weren’t going too good. I was probably six or seven when I went to the Coxes. Dulcie Cox was a beautiful woman, I remember the first time I met her and she had this beautiful hair, long silver hair. Alex Cox had a broad Scottish accent and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying! But he was the loveliest man – I’ll love them both till the day I die. So, at a young age I hit the streets. I ended up in Sydney. An older fella looked after me – he was a lovely old Aboriginal guy with one arm, he could roll a cigarette better than a 32 THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 4–25 DEC 2017 two-armed man. He looked after me. I found one sister in Sydney, but I eventually went back to Melbourne. I didn’t want to leave her, but it wasn’t my choice – I was ordered by the courts and the police. Being homeless and poor with no fixed address and no money was a crime back then; it was called vagrancy. I met my wife Ruby [Hunter] when I was about 16. I had these itchy feet when I was a young fella. I had been picking grapes in Mildura and when I left I was standing out on the highway to hitch a ride back to Melbourne and I wasn’t sure. So I flipped a coin – I said “Tails I go back to Melbourne, heads I go to South Australia” and it came up heads, so I ended up in Adelaide. I met Ruby on the street there. I said to her, “Where do all the blackfellas drink?” She said, “Just follow me,” so I did… For 38 years. Eventually because of her lead I stopped drinking. She led the way there. We had two kids and she said, “I’ve had enough Archie Roach, I can’t live this life anymore. I’m going.” So I straightened myself out and I started writing music and, not long after, my first album, Charcoal Lane. Then Ruby started writing songs. I taught her a few chords on the guitar and she just ran with it. We just bounced off each other. We’d be sitting in the kitchen with the kids around with their mates making all sorts of noise. We’d be getting a cup of tea or something and I’d be sitting down and just finished writing a song and I’d pull up a guitar and sing it to Rube and ask her “What do you think about this song?” and she’d say “Yep. That’s a hit!” Music is something I’ve always loved. I would say it was being at the Coxes that brought it out of me. Dad, Alex, had a great selection of LPs – not just Scottish ballads and bagpipes. He played things like Nat King Cole, Otis Redding and a gospel singer by the name of Mahalia Jackson. I loved her voice – it just gave me goosebumps. I actually started playing keyboard first before I picked up the guitar, but I thought the guitar was a bit easier to lug around than an organ. The sorts of songs I was writing when I first started weren’t about myself or life experience. They were like country songs, you know, like falling in love and getting drunk – or falling out of love and getting drunk. But then I went down to southwest Victoria, where my mother comes from, to visit family and relatives. My Uncle Banjo come up to me one day and said, “Why don’t you write a song about when you were taken away?” I said, “Oh I don’t know Uncle Banjo, I was only three, I don’t remember much” and he looked at me and said “Yeah, but I do.” So he sat me down and told me the yarn about when I was taken; about Dad wanting to fight everybody, and the police and the welfare and… It took us about a day and a night to finish that song and I sang it to him the next morning over a cup of tea and he said, “That’s it, you got it now my boy. That’s the song.” I think that’s the main reason why I wrote ‘Took the Children Away’. Because it wasn’t just about kids being taken away – it was about who they were taken from. I was surprised at the big reaction. You know, you write a song and Banjo and my family and the community loved it, but when it got out there I didn’t expect the reaction and how it was received. But I was still Archie to my family – they took it in their stride. I had many great experiences with other people, gosh, so many.