Until then, Archie Cox was the name he’d used. Cox was the surname of his foster parents, Alex and Dulcie. Growing up in Lilydale, north-east of Melbourne, Archie had a brother, too, Noel, who like him had been chosen by ‘‘Mum and Dad Cox … after seeing us in a government advertisement in a Melbourne newspaper. The ad asked for good Christians to open their hearts and homes to desolate Aboriginal children’’.

It was Alex Cox, a proud Scotsman, who told Archie one day after a school friend had asked why he was black and his parents were white, that ‘‘what ye are is Ab’rig’nal. You and ye paepal are the first people on this land. E’vrybody else hae are bloon awe Pommies. Yer remember tha’’.

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Another Scot, fellow musician, Jimmy Barnes, detailed in unflinching honesty the devastating impact of poverty, family violence and alcoholism in his first autobiography, Working Class Boy. Roach’s memoir is equally as important, not just in telling his own extraordinary life story, but painting the stark reality of the stolen generations.

Each of the 18 chapters in Tell Me Why opens with the lyrics from one of Roach’s songs, themselves contained in a companion album of the same name recorded with pianist and composer Paul Grabowsky. Many of the tracks are new recordings of songs from throughout Roach’s long musical career, including Took the Children Away, which he first recorded for his 1991 debut album, Charcoal Lane.

Before he’d entered a recording studio – before he’d even entertained the thought of making an album – Roach performed Took the Children Away at a rally of Aboriginal people in Sydney’s Botany Bay that coincided with the 1988 bicentenary celebrations. During a moment of bickering among those gathered, primarily about which route they would march the following day, January 26, Roach found himself on the stage.

‘‘I muttered a few words before starting the song. I have no idea what I said. Then I strummed out a few chords before launching into the first line of Took the Children Away. ‘This story’s right, this story’s true, I would not tell lies to you.’ As soon as those lines were out, I felt no fear, no trepidation. My mind was on my old dad and mum, my brothers and sisters … I didn’t try to sing to impress, or to educate. I sang to honour.’’

Archie Roach in 1990, about the time his first album came out.

Archie Roach in 1990, about the time his first album came out.Credit:Michelle Mossop

Roach’s biological father, also Archie, was a Bundjalung man from northern New South Wales, his mother, Nellie Austin, a Gunditjmara woman from south-west Victoria. Before his earliest memories, Roach was taken from his parents when the family was living at the Framlingham Aboriginal Station, a Church of England mission. He now lives not far from there in the home he shared for several years with Ruby Hunter, his partner, mother of their children and a musician and artist in her own right. Ruby was one of the stolen generations and the woman who helped save Roach when hope had all but slipped away.

‘‘It’s not all about you, Archie Roach,’’ this strong Ngarrindjeri woman told Roach years ago when he was on the brink of the first of his many albums. ‘‘How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album,’’ she said, when Roach suggested he might not pursue an offer from Paul Kelly to produce what became Charcoal Lane.

‘‘Even if I live to be a thousand years old, I’ll never forget what happened,’’ Roach recalls about that moment. ‘‘Ruby seemed to gather herself up taller than I’d ever seen her before, put her hands on her hips (then) she turned sharply and went about her day, leaving me with a lot to think about.’’

The hope, initially that Roach would be reunited with his siblings, and the music that helped carry him on his remarkable journey, ebbs and flows through these pages. At times, the despair he felt seems insurmountable, moving as he did from place to place while in his late teens and 20s, all the time battling alcohol addiction while seeking his own identity and true self.

Ultimately, hope survived and his true self has been expressed through his music. Now 63, his hopes are for a better future for all, for more understanding between white Australia and First Nations people and a deeper connection to the ‘‘soul-filling’’ rhythm of life around us all.
Martin Boulton is editor of EG at The Age and Shortlist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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