Archie Roach plays the Boomerang Festival and celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Charcoal Lane.
By Brian Wise
When Archie Roach arrived on stage at The Palais, St Kilda, in November to perform ‘Took The Children Away’ you could have heard a pin drop. The audience was transfixed and then at the end of the song it erupted into a five-minute standing ovation and there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It had to be the most emotional concert experience of the year for many of us in the audience.
Archie had earlier been inducted into the The Age/Music Victoria Hall of Fame by Jack Charles and his humble acceptance speech reflected the personality of one of Australia’s most respected musicians.
Just over 25 years ago, Archie Roach (now AM in the General Division of the Order of Australia) released the landmark album Charcoal Lane. The song ‘Took The Children Away,’ which was to win two ARIA Awards and an international Human Rights Achievement Award, spotlighted a shameful period in Australia’s history when the Government approved the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families.
Since then Roach has received many awards, released eight albums, a retrospective box set and his songs have been acclaimed locally and internationally. A couple of years ago, I saw Roger Knox perform ‘Took The Children Away’ at San Francisco’s massive Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Afterwards, many Native Americans approached him to tell him how much they related to Archie’s song.
Over the years Roach has collaborated with Paul Kelly, Troy Cassar-Daley, Christine Anu, Vika and Linda Bull, Shane Howard, Dan Sultan and others – and he has toured with Leonard Cohen, Rodriguez, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega and Patti Smith.
It’s an impressive CV and the re-release of Charcoal Lane not only features the original album re-mastered but also some live material Archie and his late partner Ruby Hunter recorded for Triple J, plus a bonus disc with the album’s songs recorded by contemporary artists, including Paul Kelly & Courtney Barnett, Briggs & Gurrumul & Dewayne Everettsmith, Dan Sultan & Emma Donovan, Radical Son & Urthboy, Emma Donovan & The Putbacks (featuring Archie), Ellie Lovegrove & Nancy Bates, Marlon Williams and Leah Flanagan.
When I catch up with Archie to talk about the re-release, I remind him of that Hall of Fame show.
“It was an amazing, amazing night,” he says. “It was incredible.”
“I don’t know why they give us a standing ovations,” he says humbly, “It was amazing.”
“To be inducted like that where I’m amongst names like, John Farnham, The Seekers, AC/DC, The Thunderbirds, Olivia Newton-John, the Sunbury Music Festival, Bill Armstrong – legends – is pretty good company,” he continues.
“I’ve listened to these people before I started doing it for a living, and playing music professionally and you stand there and you find yourself going, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s just amazing.”
Of course, someone Archie would have loved to have been at The Palais to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame was his long-time partner Ruby Hunter, who passed away in 2010.
“Well, you know, my she’s a big part of my life,” says Archie, “and when I started writing these songs it was just her and me.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out it was 25 years since the release of the album,” he says. “When you get older you don’t realise how long ago that was.”
“My Uncle Banjo Pike from Framlingham where my mother comes from,” he replies immediately,” when I ask Archie what started him writing songs and who were his influences in the early days. “He heard I was writing songs. The usual: just songs like songs I’d heard growing up – falling in love, getting drunk and falling out of love and getting drunk again.
“He came up to me and asked me ‘Why don’t you write a song about when you was taken away?’ And I thought about it a little while, and I said, ‘I don’t remember much about that I was just a little bloke, Uncle Banjo. And he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, but I do.’ I think that’s the reason I sat down with him and he told me a bit about that day and I ended up writing a song. It took me a day and a night and the next morning I finished it there.”
“What I realised from there was,” he continues, “some of these older people from my elders had some of these stories to pass on. I realised that there was a great wealth of knowledge that they could pass on and write about it in song.”
Everyone knows Archie’s association with Paul Kelly and how he has been supportive of Archie over the years but, in fact, it was a member of Kelly’s band – the late Steve Connolly – who first championed Roach and helped to get him his first record deal.
“Steve saw us on Channel 2 all those years ago,” recalls Archie, “and I was singing, ‘Took The Children Away,’ and he got in touch with Paul then – rang Paul up and he said check out this guy on Channel 2 singing a song and he told him turn on the telly now! So Paul did and the rest is history. I remember I got to meet with Paul and got to doing the album with him, Paul and Steve, co-produced the album.”
“Back in 1987 and 1988 was when these songs all started to come together,” recalls Archie, “So we had them a couple of years before we started recording them.” By the time he got into the studio with Kelly and Connolly, Roach had a full complement of songs in his repertoire.
“Steve was a beautiful man,” recalls Archie, “everybody liked him and he travelled with us when we had the first couple of shows when we were promoting the album.”
Charcoal Lane has become a classic Australian album – one of the great Australian albums of all time – but Archie had no inkling when he recorded it of the impact it would have.
“I just hoped that I had a collection of good songs that somebody might like,” he replies when I ask him what his expectations were for the album. “I hoped it would have an appeal to some people. I didn’t have any recordings. When you have a good song you like to have somebody like it as well.”
I tell Archie that one of the big thrills of my life was being in San Francisco at Hardly Strictly and seeing Roger Knox perform ‘Took The Children Away.’
“The Canadian aboriginal people made up this sort of montage of all of the children that were taken away and sent to boarding schools in Canada,” recalls Archie, “and a montage of the kids in the boarding schools while ‘Took The Children Away’ was being played through that. It was pretty amazing.”
“Any civilised peoples would be throwing their arms up in the air thinking, Why?” says Archie. “I find that it’s a universal thing, really.”
“Well, it’s like, it’s like you’re hearing them for the first time,” says Archie when I ask him what it is like to hear the diverse group of artists performing his songs. “They’ve done an amazing job and their interpretations are just brilliant. I love it.
“Because they’ve all done a good job, it’s just like you’ve given your children to these people in their care for a little while,” he adds.
I ask Archie if he has thought of writing his autobiography because it would be a fascinating story.
“I have thought about it, Brian,” he admits. “I’ve jotted down a few things and it’s just been shelved for the time being but hopefully I can get back to it.”
Archie says that later this year he is hoping to travel overseas again but before that he has the Boomerang Festival and other Australian dates.
“I am really looking forward to the Boomerang Festival, the show and the talks,” he says. “I can hardly wait!”
Charcoal Lane is available now through Festival/Warner.