When Archie Roach was 3 or 4, welfare officers came to take him away from his family in southeastern Australia. His aunt tried to scare them off with a gun, and his cousins tried to hide him under a pile of leaves. His mother wept; his father came running in from the fields. His memories of that moment were scattered, he said, but eventually he was carried away on a police officer’s shoulder, told that he was leaving for a picnic.
Mr. Roach was part of the “Stolen Generations,” the tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian children who were forcibly removed from their homes under government assimilation policies that lasted into the 1970s. As an adult, he struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, sleeping on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne while trying to reconnect with members of his family. He spent time in prison and in hospitals, suffering seizures that doctors linked to his alcohol abuse, and he attempted suicide while trying to dry out.
Music helped ease his pain. “It gave me something to fill the gap left by drinking,” he told People magazine. With his husky baritone, gentle guitar playing, and poignant lyrics about family, love and politics, he became one of Australia’s most renowned singer-songwriters, raising awareness of the Stolen Generations through his debut single, the 1990 ballad “Took the Children Away.”
"This story's right, this story's true; I would not tell lies to you," he sang. "Like the promises they did not keep, and how they fenced us in like sheep. They said to us, 'Come take our hand,' set us up on mission land. They taught us to read, to write and pray.
"Then they took the children away."
Mr. Roach was 66 when he died July 30 at a hospital in Warrnambool, Victoria, on Australia’s southeastern coast. His death was announced in a statement by his sons, Amos and Eban, who gave permission to use his name and image. (For cultural reasons, many Australian Indigenous people do not use a person’s name and image after death.) They said Roach had a “long illness” - he acknowledged struggling with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - but did not cite a specific cause.
"Our country has lost a brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth teller," Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Twitter. "Archie's music drew from a well of trauma and pain, but it flowed with a beauty and a resonance that moved us all."
A senior elder of the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung people, Mr. Roach was a leading advocate for Aboriginal communities, working with Indigenous children in juvenile detention centers and developing educational resources to help students learn about the Stolen Generations. The mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was “as much a part of Australia’s history as Captain Cook and Burke and Wills,” he told the Guardian in 2020, referring to British explorers who helped map the continent.
"We still need to own the whole history of this country and be honest and courageous," he said. "It's the only way we're going to move on."
Mr. Roach drew on American country, soul, and gospel in his music, releasing 10 studio albums and opening for artists including Billy Bragg, Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Paul Simon. But he remained best-known for “Took the Children Away,” which he wrote in the late 1980s, a few years after historian Peter Read started using the term “Stolen Generations” to describe the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes.
“It is a landmark,” the Melbourne Age wrote in 1990, shortly before the release of Mr. Roach’s debut album, “Charcoal Lane.” “Quite apart from its place in Aboriginal history, it is a great Australian folk song, perhaps the greatest since ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’ "
When Mr. Roach first started playing the song, audiences were dumbfounded. “I had goose bumps and the hairs went up on the back of my neck as he sang it, to dead silence from the audience,” singer-songwriter Paul Kelly told the Guardian, recalling a 1989 performance by Mr. Roach in Melbourne. “He finished the song and there was still dead silence. He just stood there for a minute, and there was still silence.
"Archie thought he'd bombed, that everybody hated it, so he just turned and started to walk offstage. And as he walked off, this applause started to build and build and build. ... I'd never seen it before - people were so stunned at the end of the song that it took them a while just to gather themselves to applaud."
Five years after Mr. Roach recorded the song, the Australian government launched a national inquiry into the Stolen Generations. It found that from 1910 to 1970, as many as one in three Indigenous children - many of mixed white and Aboriginal descent - were removed from their communities and taken to churches and foster homes, under the premise that a Western upbringing was more humane. Many of the children faced physical and sexual abuse, according to the inquiry, which likened the forced-removal policies to genocide.
After more than a decade of campaigning by Mr. Roach and other activists, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an official government apology in 2008, acknowledging what he described as “a great stain on the nation’s soul.” Last year, Australia’s government agreed to pay about $280 million in reparations to survivors taken from their families.
“For years I’d walked around with this burden, not just of being removed, but of who I was removed from: my mother and father,” Mr. Roach told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 2018. “It was like I was carrying them around with me for years, on my back. When the apology came it was like the weight shifted and I felt light. To me it was like they were set free - Dad to return as a red-bellied black snake, and Mum to fly away as the wedge-tailed eagle,” a central figure in Aboriginal mythology.
Archibald William Roach was born in the rural town of Mooroopna, Victoria, on Jan. 8, 1956. One of seven children, he was living in Framlingham, not far from where he died, when he and some of his siblings were taken to a foster home. Officials tried to westernize him, including by attempting to comb his hair flat, and falsely told him his parents had died in a house fire.
Mr. Roach was adopted by Scottish immigrants in Melbourne, whom he described as kind and loving. But “there was always a restlessness in me, like a fault line waiting to rupture,” he recalled. Around age 14, he got a letter from a little-known sister, Myrtle, telling him their mother had died the previous week. He left home and spent the next 14 years searching for information about his past, eventually reuniting with two sisters and other relatives.
As a homeless teenager in Sydney, he met Ruby Hunter, a fellow Aboriginal musician who had also been taken from her family. They became musical partners, got married and referred to each other as “Dad” and “Mum,” terms of affection that they used in the absence of their birthparents.
By the late 1980s they had formed a band, the Altogethers, and moved to Melbourne, where Mr. Roach’s performance on a local television show attracted the attention of guitarist Steve Connolly, who played with Kelly’s band the Messengers. Together, Kelly and Connolly produced Mr. Roach’s debut album, which won two ARIA Awards, the equivalent of an Australian Grammy.
Mr. Roach said he was initially uncomfortable with the spotlight, and for a time he considered quitting music. He continued after receiving encouragement from Hunter, who told him, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many Blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?”
His later records included “Jamu Dreaming” (1993), “Looking for Butter Boy” (1997), and “Tell Me Why” (2019), which accompanied his memoir of the same name. When the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel what was supposed to be his last concert tour, he sat down at his kitchen table and rerecorded the songs from his first album, releasing the new version as “The Songs of Charcoal Lane” (2020).
Information on survivors was not immediately available. Hunter died of a heart attack in 2010 at age 54, and Mr. Roach was still grieving her loss when he suffered a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed on his right side. The next year, he was diagnosed with cancer, which caused him to lose half a lung. Still, he continued to perform, aided by supplemental oxygen.
He often said that each time he played “Took the Children Away,” he let go of a little pain. “I still feel the pain, every day,” he told Time magazine. “Sometimes it threatens to engulf me. But I’m not going to let it destroy me.”
Eventually, he said, that pain would be gone for good.