Among the thousands of Aboriginal children wrenched from their parents to be fostered by white families was Archie Roach who survived the trauma to become one of the country's most popular musicians. NICK DAVIES reports.
WHEN Archie Roach was a small child in the early 1950s, he lived in Framlingham, a short row of tin shacks and little brick houses that stood on a dusty, dry plateau near the edge of a gorge about 500 kilometres west of Melbourne. Once his family had lived by a riverbank, where they could hunt and catch fresh fish, but some white people had come and ordered all of them - Archie and his six brothers and sisters and their parents - to move into this bleak place. They said it was for their own good, so they could teach them how to read and write and pray.
When Archie was three or four years old, some people from the Aboriginal Protection Board came with a policeman and told his parents that they were taking their children away, so that they could be brought up properly by white families who would teach them how to be real Australians.
Archie has some memory of his father running from the fields to protect them and of his cousins trying to hide him. But the white people found him and told him that he was going on a picnic; his mother wept when they took him away. They took all of his brothers and sisters, too, except for the oldest, Johnni, who was so big he was always known as Horse. It was his size that saved him: he was only 15, but the white people took him for an adult and let him stay. They sent off his other brother and his two older sisters on their own and took Archie and his two youngest sisters, Gladdie and Diana, to a Salvation Army orphanage.
They didn't tell him that he would never see his mother and father again, they just worked on him - made him wear shoes, sent him to speech therapy, and kept combing and combing his wild frizzy hair trying to straighten it. The boy was left to guess what had happened to him and to guess, too, what could happen next. He had no idea that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children all over Australia.
He and his two young sisters did not stay long in the orphanage. As soon as they had soaked up enough Christian discipline, they were deemed ready to live with a white family and the three of them were shunted off in different directions to start a new life with foster parents. It didn't work out with his first foster family. So Archie was moved. It didn't work out with his second family, either. They were farm workers. Years later, he still won't talk about what happened.
When he was nine, he was sent to a third white family, a couple named Alec and Dulcie Cox, who had migrated from Scotland to Melbourne with their children and set up home in Lilydale.
Mr and Mrs Cox became his father and mother. His life took on a kind of stability. He went to school and made friends and, as the time passed, his memory faded. Soon, he forgot about Horse and the brothers and sisters he had known in Framlingham, he even forgot about Diana who had been with him in the orphanage, though he still clung to a vague knowledge of Gladdie who had been his protector and used her fists to defend him if ever he was attacked.
His amnesia went even deeper. One day, when he was 11, he brought home a new friend from school and introduced him to his mum and dad and, a little later, when the two boys were alone together, his friend looked at him and said: "How come your parents are white?" "White?" "Yeah, they're white and you're black." "Am I? " said Archie.
He had noticed he had dark skin, but, in his mind, that was nothing special - just like another kid might have light hair or wear glasses. He had never really given it a second thought. Now he went to find Alec Cox and asked him straight: "Am I black?" Mr Cox hugged him and told him the truth as he knew it - that Archie was the sole survivor of an Aboriginal family who had been killed in a house fire - that was what the Coxes had been told. And so Archie got on with his life; and in its artificial way, it was a good life.
And, in the same unconscious way, the Coxes' natural daughter Mary, started playing the piano for Archie, singing him old gospel songs, which made a deep impression. When he was 12 or 13, a friend persuaded him to go to a Pentecostal church with him. For the sake of being friendly, Archie went along and sat polite and bored through the service until a woman appeared with an acoustic guitar and sang a Hank Williams song. There and then, as the music gripped his imagination and idled his heart, he knew this was what he wanted to do.
He started learning to play acoustic guitar with Mary, singing Hank Williams and George Jones songs and any other country music Mary could lay her hands on. So he might have continued for years, slowly drifting away from his past, if it had not been for one of his older sisters, Myrtle, who wrote him a letter. He was 14 or 15. She sent it to his school in Lilydale, and they put out an announcement that there was a letter for Archie Roach.
By now, Archie knew himself only as Archie Cox, but he knew, too, that he was the only Archie in the school, so he went and collected the letter. He showed it to his best friend, Glen McKinnon, who said it was obviously for someone else. It mentioned several family names that Archie had never heard of. And who was this Myrtle? There was one name he knew. Gladdie. He still remembered Gladdie. So, unlikely as it was, he knew the letter was for him. And when it said that his mother had died last week, he felt a sadness.
He went home and showed it to Mr and Mrs Cox, who began to cry. Archie saw their tears and he remembered the boy who had told him he was black, and he thought of the fire that was supposed to have killed all his family and he looked at the letter, and he thought of his own mother dying without him - living all these years without him - and he was flooded with anger. He blamed the Coxes. These were tears of guilt, he was sure. They must have lied to him. And a few days later when a man came to the door and told Archie he was his social worker, his grief and anger exploded, blowing away the sturdy framework of his life. He wanted to hurt someone. At school, he started beating other kids, something he had never done before. He was disrespectful to the teachers and to the Coxes. He no longer gave a damn about this white life and he made up his mind to go out on the streets, to find his own people, his own family. So he ran.
He was 15. he had a guitar strapped across his back, he had no money. He headed out to find Aboriginal people. He found some who knew some of his family and discovered they were living in Sydney. He set off along the road, stopping in towns along the way to find work to stay alive. It was the best part of a year before he finally made it to Sydney and when he got there, the trail had gone cold. His family had moved on again. Bitter and angry, he took to the city streets, sleeping with the homeless and with wine-sodden wrecks.
One day, he was sitting in a pub and he was drunk - too drunk to tell a lie, as they say. A woman started talking to him and when she asked him his name, the drink made him forget his alias. "Archie Roach," he said. The woman looked at him and started asking him questions about his family. In his sleepy, slurred voice, he started reeling the family names he knew. As he spoke, the woman stared at him more intently, and as he dragged up more and more names of kin he had never met, she started to roll her head and wave her arms around. Archie thought she was having a fit. She fell on him, screaming and crying. He tried to roll away, but then he heard what she was yelling: "Baby, my baby: I'm Diana. I'm your sister. You're my brother."
Archie Roach lost 14 years on the streets. Along the way, he discovered that his father and his beloved sister Gladdie were both dead; he followed the scattered clues to trace the remains of his family, drank himself to the point of poisoning, went tent-boxing like his father before him; had two children with a young Aboriginal woman, Ruby Power, who, like him, had been stolen from her parents; and somehow, in among an agony of confusion, he played his guitar.
It was 1983 and he was 29 years old before he finally returned from the wilderness to make a home with his children.
He came back in one sense simply because he went to a rehabilitation centre and managed to stop himself drinking but, more important, he emerged in one piece because he listened to his Uncle Banjo, who told him to stop singing other people's songs and to write about his own life.
So he sat down and wrote a song called 'Took The Children Away', the story of the day in Framlingham when he was stolen from his parents. The song was the beginning of a long and accidental therapy, in which he squeezed the poison out of his spirit and into his music. All the time that he appeared to be writing about other people, he was writing really about himself.
But, in following the clues to his broken past, he had uncovered something so bitterly sad that it provided one particular image which recurred almost obsessively in his music.
The clue that began it all was that letter from his sister, Myrtle. How had she known where to send it? How had she known that he was at Lilydale school? The answer dawned an him slowly. He discovered that an Aboriginal family, close friends of his own family, had been living not far from Lilydale and that his mother had stayed with them. His mother had been there when he was there. She must have seen him go to school, he reasoned. And known him for her lost son. That was how Myrtle had known where to send the letter.
Archie moved to Melbourne, where a museum was preparing a tape of Aboriginal music to celebrate the 1988 Bicentennial of the founding of Australia. He played his song for them. A community radio station heard the tape and asked him to play it on the air. A television station heard the radio show and asked him to play the song on an Aboriginal current affairs show. A Melbourne rock guitarist, Steve Connolly, who was then playing with Paul Kelly, heard the song and called Kelly, persuading him to let Archie Roach play an opening set at their next concert in Melbourne.
On a warm night in November 1989, Archie Roach walked on to the stage of the Melbourne Concert Hall in front of 2000 people. He could not believe how many people were there. His hands were shaking with fear. He sat on a low chair, rested his guitar across his knee and, without any words of introduction, he began to play them Beautiful Child. After that he told the silent audience, 'This next song is about something that happened a long time ago'. Then, in his slow, dark voice, he told them about the children.
He came to the end of his song. But still there was no sound from the vast audience. Archie shrugged and said to himself, "Well bugger it if they don't like it." And started shuffling towards the wings. As he walked, he heard someone somewhere start to clap and then another. He could see Paul Kelly smiling at him from the wings and then he heard the roar of applause. He stopped and turned and stood there as a mighty wave of affection swept down from all corners of the hall.
His life was never the same again. With Paul Kelly's help, he recorded an album, Charcoal Lane, which won two Australian Record industry awards and was distributed in Australia and the United States. He and his wife, Ruby, who recorded her own album, toured America with Joan Armatrading and shared a bill with Bob Dylan.
It is only in retrospect that he has come to understand why his music appeals to so many- "We can't measure the depths of each other's suffering. When you suffer, that's the worst suffering in the world. That's what I try to talk about. When I first wrote Took The Children Away, I thought, "Here I'm writing for my people - at last a song that tells this terrible thing."
"But non-Aboriginal people are coming up to me and saying it meant so much to them, because they didn't have to be Aboriginal to understand the emotion of being separated from your mother."
"If it hadn't been for an that happened to me, I probably wouldn't have been a musician. We are the sum total of our lives, of that's happened to us. A lot of things are sad but I would never ask to be different. Terrible things happen because of misunderstanding, but I know I would be a poorer person if I had not been through these things."
Reprinted from the Guardian.
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Text marked up by Sarah Peckham 1/8/96.