Books and reading,  History

The story of a generous and beautiful Australian: Archie Roach’s memoir ‘Tell Me Why’

I remember the first time I saw Archie Roach perform. I’d bought his first two albums (Charcoal Lane and Jamu Dreaming) and already loved his music, his voice, and the honesty of his songs. Walking into Doors always brought me to tears, perhaps because of my own life experiences years before. I’d not seen him perform live, until the Woodford Folk Festival (one of Australia’s biggest and most magical festivals) in the mid 1990’s.
My sister and I left our arrival at the big tent venue where Archie was going to play a bit late, and ended up perched on a grassy hillock to one side, where we were crammed in with others who loved this man’s music and message. All I could see were his legs and feet!

It didn’t matter. Archie’s sublime voice sailed out above the gathered crowd, touching hearts with his stories and his humble and generous manner. From that moment I was an avowed Archie fan.

Tell Me Why is a memoir, tracing his incredible, tragic, wonderful life and career. Just as his songs (like Charcoal Lane, Took the Children Away, A Child was Born Here, Walking into Doors, Jamu Dreaming, or Weeping in the Forest) told the stories of this land and it’s history, Tell Me Why gives us insight into Archie’s own story, his journey through a childhood as one of the Stolen Generations, discovering as a schoolboy in Melbourne that he had a whole birth family elsewhere, and the many years he spent trying to discover and reconcile his indigenous identity.

I found it shocking to realise that he grew up knowing nothing of the Stolen Generations, either at a personal level or the wider ramifications for indigenous Australians. Nor did he know about the ‘missions’, established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of corralling indigenous Australians into settlements, often away from their traditional country. These were among practices that were either about protection of indigenous Australians, or a form of apartheid making it easier for Europeans to take and occupy land. Whichever way you regard the motives behind these occurrences, the results were mostly tragic, with ramifications felt by generations to come. For Archie and many of his family and friends, this included struggles with addictions of various kinds:

We were part of an obliterated culture, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again. We’d lost mates and family young, and we would again. We had lineages we knew so little about. There was death in our past, and death in our future, but we craved a carefree and happy present, and booze offered us that.

Tell Me Why p54

Archie talks about his own struggles with alcoholism; his painful rehabilitation; grief at the untimely deaths of family members; his health challenges. There is joy, also: meeting Ruby Hunter, his life partner; creating a family together; discovering that for him, music might be more powerful than the drink. (p144)
I laughed with him at his memory of one of his first big live gigs, opening for Paul Kelly & The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, when he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was and mistook him for a bouncer!

Reading Archie’s reflections on life, people, and the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal culture, there were reminders for me of the beautiful book Song Spirals, with its exploration of indigenous perceptions and beliefs about time, life and death. Here is Archie:

There was no word for death, because life is an endless continuum – you didn’t die, you travelled; you left one place to go to another. Life kept going on, unceasingly. The Bundjalung didn’t have a word for ‘thanks’, either, with the closest being to ‘wish someone well’. There was no need to say anything if someone gave you something; you would just wish them well because sharing and generosity was expected.
Even though I couldn’t speak my father’s language, when I sang in Bundjalung it felt as if I was doing something I’d done before long ago. It was in my memory.

Tell Me Why p274

Characteristically, the memoir finishes in his inclusive style, reflecting on what joins Australians together regardless of race or background:

Now my songwriting feels more inclusive, more universal…I have come to realise that it’s about all of us – you can’t really write about yourself without including everyone. What affects you invariably affects others as well…Now my whole outlook on life is about reminding us all of the place where we all began, where we all came from …the ‘place of fire’…{It’s} a place of love and connection.

Tell me Why pp 351-353

This memoir will make you cry, feel anger, laugh out loud, and when you have finished, I promise you, your heart will be full of Archie’s generous and resilient spirit.

Tell Me Why was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019

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