Archie Roach, who has died following a long illness aged 66, overcame poverty, homelessness, prison, alcoholism and attempted suicide to become a revered singer, songwriter and storyteller, shining a shocking spotlight on the injustices suffered by Australia's indigenous people.
Written directly from his own painful experience as one of the "stolen generation", his heartbreaking song Took the Children Away, originally recorded in 1990, gained celebrated status, won various awards – including the international Human Rights Achievement Award – and forced Australia to confront the ugly truth of the government policy, which ran from the 1880s to the 1970s, of forcibly removing Aboriginal babies from their families and cutting them off from their traditions so they would be educated and assimilated into white culture.
He was born on January 8 1956 in Mooroopna, Victoria, to the Bunjalung Aborigines Nellie Austin and Archie Roach Snr, but, like many others, was taken by government agencies and put into orphanages and foster care while still a toddler. One family who fostered him in Melbourne were two Scottish immigrants, Alex and Dulcie Cox, who were told his parents had died in a fire.
Through them he discovered his gift for music, listening to their eclectic record collection that introduced him to Scottish folk ballads, black singers as diverse as Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday and Otis Redding, and the country songs of Hank Williams. The family's eldest daughter Mary, who played keyboards and guitar in the local Pentecostal church, taught Archie to play guitar.
Eventually learning the truth of his enforced separation from his family via a letter from Myrtle, a sister he never knew he had, he took off despairingly in search of other blood relatives, with only his guitar for company.
It led him to live rough on the streets of Sydney and Adelaide, descending into a desperate life of drink and drugs. At one point he was sent to prison as a vagrant and, at his lowest ebb, tried to kill himself.
Salvation arrived through his meeting, aged 17, with Ruby Hunter, another "stolen generation" musician living on the streets, who became both his musical partner and his wife. "She had a nurturing spirit and she turned my life around," he said.
He stopped drinking, and they formed a band, the Altogethers, moved to Melbourne and started playing in dingy pubs. It brought them to the attention of one of Australia's most popular singer-songwriters of the day, Paul Kelly, who invited them to open one of his shows at Melbourne Concert Hall.
Having composed his first song, Open Your Eyes, aged 19 when he was in rehab, he wrote Took the Children Away in one day after a meeting with his uncle Henry "Banjo" Clarke, who explained in detail what happened on the day he was stolen. The song featured on his debut album Charcoal Lane, and his soulful delivery of the song's insistent, haunting chorus not only resonated with the indigenous population, it also sent shock waves throughout Australia.
Other songs followed exploring his own harrowing experiences and the wider problems of First Nations peoples. He toured the world, made a series of influential solo albums, played with Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Joan Armatrading and Billy Bragg and became a voice against injustice and inhumanity. His work led indirectly to the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd making a formal apology to the stolen generations in 2008.
Roach himself, a gentle man of exceptional humility, was conciliatory. "I look back on my childhood with sadness, having to grow up too fast and too early, never knowing my mother and father and big sister. It shaped me, but I'm not bitter. Music helped me heal. Bitterness and anger will kill you."
He continued to campaign for the rights of indigenous people, taught music and opened his home as a refuge for troubled Aboriginal teenagers. He suffered more tragedy with the death in 2010 of Ruby, a successful singer and writer in her own right, and suffered a stroke a few months later. He also overcame lung cancer and major surgery but returned to the stage, and in 2019 published his memoir Tell Me Why, accompanied by a new album of the same name.
In 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his "significant service to the performing arts as a singer, songwriter and guitarist and to the community as a spokesman for social justice".
He is survived by his sons Amos and Eban.
Archie Roach, born January 8 1956, died July 30 2022
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