Songs are at the core of Aboriginal culture, the creation myths of Australia’s native people tells of totemic beings who traveled the continent in what they called the Dreamtime, singing the name of everything they encountered, marking an ancestral trail of words and music that functioned as both a geographical and spiritual map. From his seminal debut album Charcoal Lane in 1990 to some thirty years later, we are now privileged to be able to look back at the legacy of one Archibald William Roach. The many songs that have been inspired by his life as one of the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children, taken from his parents at the age of three, shuffled through a soulless succession of foster homes, until he found loving white foster parents in Mum and Dad Cox, at times he would struggle to survive, and his music is his autobiography. (Archie below 1971)
In A Child Was Born Here he continues the fight to save sacred birthing trees as travels through the scattered haunts of stolen children, in F Troop he revisits the Charcoal Lane neighbourhood of his addicted youth and the bittersweet memory of meeting his brother for the first time, the rousing Rally Round the Drum was an ode to his father and his brief stint as a travelling tent boxer, while in Louis St. John he joins his wife Ruby Hunter in a mournful affirmation of the persistence of the human spirit. Free was Roach’s moving anti-racial -profiling anthem, Took the Children Away became the song that defined the horrors of the stolen generation, and beside these totemic anthems, was the quiet dignity and heart-breaking melancholy of Summer of My Life.
In his 2019 autobiography “tell me why- the story of my life and my music” – Archie reveals the inspiration for this song occurred when he was working as a counsellor at the Cresswell Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre in the north of Melbourne, with mostly Aboriginal patients, helping them to find sobriety and purpose in life, as he had done. While accompanying one of his patients on a hospital visit, he noticed a tiny grey-haired woman walking slowly and purposefully along the ward following her at a distance was an orderly, some of the staff would say hello to her but she didn’t respond; she was concentrating on something, as if remembering something “I asked one of the nurses who she was and he told me she was the wife of a patient who had died about a year ago. She now came to the ward to sit in the chairs her husband sat in, or visit the bed he spent most of his stay in, as long the patients didn’t mind. They usually didn’t – “I’m in the summer of my life/I’ve seen the good times, I’ve seen the strife/I’ve just been under the surgeon’s knife/But please don’t cry, my darling wife/ ‘Cause you and I, we’ve had some fun/And our love has touched everyone/And in the light of the moon and sun/You and I have been as one.”
The performance clip shows Archie and Jess Hitchcock in St Brigid’s Church in Gunditjmara country performing a duet accompanied by a bass, violin, and acoustic guitar, the church is a sparse, unadorned, reverent setting for this song of enduring love between a woman and a man, the divine light of the cherished memory of their life together pervades the verses and choruses, Archie’s aging voice has acquired a patina and husky resonance not unlike Tom Waits or a late-career Leonard Cohen, it was one of Archie’s most poignant, beautiful, and affecting songs.
In 2021 Archie Roach’s appearance on stage for his Melbourne show as part of his national tour Tell Me Why, was a confronting and heartbreaking sight for his many fans at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Archie was wheeled onto the stage holding an oxygen bottle, the tubes from which were feeding much-needed oxygen into his lungs.
He made it clear to all who were present that he was doing this not because he had to, but because he wanted to, because for Archie performing is curative, healing, despite the serious chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he has battled for years. In 2020, Archie Roach became the fourth indigenous performer to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, joining Jimmy Little, Kevin Carmody, and Yothu Yindi, and following the release of his debut album Charcoal Lane, he would continue to write and record another seven successful albums – Jamu Dreaming (’92), Looking for Butter Boy (’97) which won three ARIA awards in 1998, Sensual Being (’02), Into the Bloodstream inspired by the premature death of Ruby Hunter who sadly passed away in 2010, Let Love Rule (’16), Dancing With My Spirit (’18) and Tell Me Why (’19) which won two ARIA Awards in 2020. Archie has endured lung cancer and coronary disease, a heart attack in 2010 forced him to learn how to play the guitar again, but he has survived to write, record, and continue his work within the Aboriginal community and with aspiring indigenous artists.