Features May 15, 2018

“All his songs are love songs to country and clan”: Paul Kelly on his decades alongside Archie Roach

“All his songs are love songs to country and clan”: Paul Kelly on his decades alongside Archie Roach
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Legendary Australian musician, storyteller and activist Archie Roach will be honoured tomorrow by Support Act at the annual Music In The House luncheon in Syndey. The presentation of Support Act’s Excellence in The Community award will recognise his powerful contribution to Australian music, and his tireless work in support of First Nations’ people.

We asked a previous recipient of the award, and friend and colleague, Paul Kelly, to share his favourite stories from their many years together. He has provided us with an excerpt from his 2010 memoir, How To Make Gravy, which captures Archie’s humility, strength, and the impact of his music on not only his audience but the wider Australian community. 

In 1991 I was booked to play with The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, now called the Hamer Hall. We wanted to make it a special show and were casting around for a suitable opening act. Steve Connolly rang up one day and said, “I’ve just seen the most amazing singer on TV. We should get him.”

The program Steve had caught by chance was called Blackout, an Indigenous arts show. The singer was Archie Roach and the song was ‘They Took The Children Away’. We tracked Archie down and booked him.

I met him for the first time in the dark wings of the Concert Hall just minutes before he was due to go on. He walked on stage and sang for 25 minutes, closing with ‘They Took The Children Away’. As I watched from the side, all the hairs on my body stood up. I could feel the same thing happening out in the auditorium.

The writer Martin Flanagan, who was there that night, describes what it was like in the audience:

When he finished his performance there was no sound in that vast auditorium, no sound at all. He thought he had failed… He started to walk from the stage and the applause began running after him, the audience realising he would soon be gone, this man who had done something magical, raising the darkness of the past, telling it in truth, but with a largeness that excluded no-one, and some of us had been waiting all our lives to hear a voice like that, and the applause was building and building like the crest of a wave but when the wave broke and the applause which was supposed to sweep him up crashed on to an empty stage he was gone.

We walked on stage minutes later. I don’t remember a thing about our performance. By the time we’d finished, Archie had gone again.

Archie had been playing music for quite a number of years before we met, performing in folk clubs and at country music festivals. Writing songs was a way out of alcohol dependence. Travelling with Archie as he sang and spoke his pain over and over again at gigs, on radio stations, TV, and for the press, I could see the toll on him of a thousand little cuts. ‘You got me into this,’ he’d say to me, ‘I don’t know whether to kiss you or punch you.’

On the one hand, he was glad to have the chance to tell his Dickensian story and the wider story of the stolen generations. And proud to be still standing. But the telling was raw for him each time. He’s had things taken away he’ll never get back. And everywhere he went it seemed everyone wanted another little piece of him. The glare of the spotlight dimmed eventually, but it’s the way of show business for the spotlight to come back around every so often. You find a way to manage the rhythms, beat a retreat for a while, then climb out of your refuge to face the music again.

For Archie, though, refuge is hard to find. For years now people have called him Uncle, the way they do Kev Carmody. Uncle Arch, Uncle Kev. These men carry the hopes and burdens of many others on their backs, and at times you can see them stagger under the load of more than two hundred years of mayhem.

Everything we do is political. No one bears that out better than Archie. All his songs are love songs – love songs to country and clan – and at the same time they cry out for a better world. He keeps taking them round the country and the world; stories of the men, women, children, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers of Aboriginal Australia. He refuses to despair. Although many of the stolen children never came back, although many of the children of the stolen have never known the way, Archie still keeps singing them home.

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