Archie Roach 3

They Took the Children Away (A Roach) – Archie Roach 1990

From 1905-1970 the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent were forcibly removed from their parents by state and federal government agencies because they believed that the aboriginal population was being devastated and in a catastrophic decline, following the advent of contact with the white population.

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Other grounds cited for abducting the children were to protect indigenous children from perceived endemic neglect and abuse and because full-blood Aborigines resented miscegenation and the mixed -race progeny fathered and abandoned by white men. Archie Roach’s mother Nellie (nee Austin) was from Gunditjmara land around Warrnambool and his father, Archibald “Snowball” Roach, was a Bundjalung man from NSW.(together above)

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The children who were abducted became known as the Stolen Generation, approx. 25% of all indigenous children were relocated under this cruelly misguided act of paternalism, one of them was four-year -old Archibald William “Archie” Roach, who with his sisters were abducted at Framingham near Warrnambool (Vic.) and placed in a Church of England mission.(Archie above)

One dark day on Framingham/ Come and didn’t give a damn/ My mother cried go get their dad/ He came running, fighting mad/ Mother’s tears were falling down/ Dad shaped up and stood his ground/ He said, “You touch my kid and you fight me”.

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Roach was ultimately fostered out to a Scottish immigrant family, Alex and Dulcie Cox (above) who lived in Melbourne, their daughter Mary taught Archie the basics of piano and guitar and he drew further inspiration from his foster father’s collection of black music by the Drifters, the Ink Spots, Billie Holliday, and Nat King Cole, while his foster mother taught him about love and kindness.

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At fifteen Archie re-connected with his older sister Myrtle and learned of his childhood and his abduction, he could no longer stay with his foster parents, the pain, anguish, and frustration of his stolen youth drove him to become a homeless person and later an alcoholic in the infamous Charcoal Lane area in Fitzroy (Melb), a location which would become the title of Archie’s debut album.

But salvation was in sight for Archie, he had met his muse Ruby Hunter (below with Archie) at a Salvation Army drop-in centre, she too was one of the Stolen Generation, and would become his wife, soulmate and musical collaborator. Remarkably Ruby had seen a young Archie in the audience of The Happy Hammond Show on television as a child and had said to her mother “I’m going to marry that boy”, and she did. Archie stopped drinking at 26 years of age, and he began to emerge as a popular folk and roots singer/songwriter, he formed the Altogethers band and started gigging in Melbourne.

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In the late 1980’s Archie began to collaborate with Paul Kelly who worked with him on his debut album, Charcoal Lane, from which the powerful and visceral protest song Took The Children Away was lifted.

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 It wasn’t the first song about the Stolen Generation, Bob Randall’s 1970 song Brown Skin Baby (They Took Me Away), is credited with stopping the practice of abducting indigenous children; but Archie’s song spoke so movingly of his own personal experience, and the post-abduction stress and humiliation endured by him and thousands of other indigenous children, that it rightly became an anthem for the Stolen Generation “Told us what to do and say/Told us all the white man’s ways/ Then they split us up again/ And gave us gifts to ease the pain/ Sent us off to foster homes/ As we grew up we felt all alone/ Cause we were acting white/ Yet feeling black.” The song is a strident and resonant expression of aboriginal activism, an honest and forthright storytelling of the sad truth of indigenous dispossession and segregation.

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The powerful lyrics are delivered in a slowly-building tempo, with a sparse and quiet urgency underscored by organ, guitars, and tambourine, it’s impact on the national consciousness cannot be overstated. The song was awarded two Aria Awards and an International Human Rights Achievement Award in 2013, it was also added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia Registry, and Archie would go on to perform with such international artists as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Billy Bragg, Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen, Joan Armatrading and Patti Smith.

Archie Roach’s epic Stolen Generation anthem.

Took the Children Away failed to chart and was not favored by APRA when they compiled the Best Australian Songs 1926-2001, yet it was a beacon for other indigenous artists to follow, and they have – Christine Anu, Dan Sultan Jessica Mauboy, Marcus Corowa, Isaiah Firebrace, Tjimba, the Yung Warriors, and the Black Rock Band. Archie has also embraced other causes in his music including aboriginal deaths in custody (Beautiful Child), dispossession of First Nation people (Bicentennial Blues) and land rights (Keep Your Handouts Give Us Back Our Land).

The promo video for Took the Children Away was staged on a simple, unadorned monochrome set with Archie performing on acoustic guitar, intercut with several exterior scenes of a young boy named Terence, who was one of Archie and Ruby’s foster children, to whom he dedicated the song Mr T on his album Jamu Dreaming (1994), Archie is finally joined by Ruby Hunter, Tim Finn and others in a moving finale.

The Rudd Labor government issued an official apology to the Stolen Generation in February 2008, but there is still no treaty, in 2020 Archie was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, and on July 30 2022 Archibald William Roach succumbed to illness and sadly passed away at the age of 66.

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