Archie Roach’s great love Ruby Hunter died too young in early 2010 and he was lost, gone. He did a show at the Port Fairy Folk Festival the day after he buried her and it’s a mirage. It was too soon. “It was like a dream,” he says. “Can’t remember anything about it.”
Archie is Australia’s beloved, respected and admired Aboriginal singer/songwriter with a voice and sensibility that is this country’s most important songline. Ruby was his soulmate and muse and a remarkable red-dirt musician herself; the feisty “girl with those big brown eyes” he sings of in Little by Little from his extraordinary new album Into The Bloodstream – the record that almost didn’t happen. And also in so many ways the Archie Roach record you’d least expect to hear.
Ruby died unexpectedly at their Killarney home in southwestern Victoria, near Warrnambool. It’s Archie’s mother’s country. They had moved there from Berri in South Australia up near the Murray, which is Ruby’s country.
2010 didn’t get any better. In October of that year Archie suffered a stroke while holding music classes with children at remote Turkey Creek in the Kimberley with Shane Howard, his comrade and confidante. They were amongst the Bungle Bungles when it happened and he was taken 800 km by Flying Doctor to Broome then onto Perth.
He needed rehabilitation and was interred for a spell in Perth where the medical people gave this proud, humble man a wheelchair but he shooed it away and pledged to learn to walk again, which he did. His whole right side was buggered including his right hand, his guitar strumming hand.
At first he couldn’t play at all. He had a guitar there in rehab but it wasn’t working out. “Couldn’t do a bloody thing,” he says. “But with time and practise it came right but I still can’t play the guitar like I used to.”
He was initially frustrated. Should he take up another instrument, the piano maybe? “Do a Billy Preston,” he says. “The guitar wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do. Made me want to throw it away.”
Then he started having troubles in his chest. Doctors found the very early stages of lung cancer. He opted for surgery and had half a lung removed.
Yet this chaos, pain and uncertainty has, through Archie’s rich, determined spirit, led to his most positive and celebratory suite of music yet: the joy and exuberance of much of Into The Bloodstream, his eighth studio album, is palpable. With the bad times subsiding, this new album is a joyous declaration of his new purpose and new resolve. This is uplifting music made against the odds.
It could be said that through his long and distinguished career Archie has sung of suffering, pain and injustice in a manner more effective than most. His blueprint song and his most enduring one also is Took The Children Away, from 1990 and the great Charcoal Lane era, a song which documented the yearning of the Stolen Generations and cries tears still, an Australian musical landmark in the same way that Flame Trees and My Island Home are landmarks.
Yet now Archie has turned to joy and hope and the idea of lifting himself and others up through song. As his body recovers so too does his mind. He says Into The Bloodstream is about “finding strength” and then expressing it.
“Overcoming difficulties,” he says, “and singing more uplifting songs that are not so much about suffering and pain but rising above that. Going through what I have has made me realise that a big part of people getting sick has to do with holding onto pain and not letting it go. That was the inspiration behind it all. Letting go of the pain and the bad stuff and holding onto something good and strong.”
Songs like Song To Sing, Heal The People and Little By Little are dance songs, drawn from soul, gospel and rollicking country ‘n’ western. The big voice, big horns and even bigger organ rolls of Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett live strong in songs like this – and the ghost of Johnny Cash on the magnificent Big Black Train.
Yet when Archie turns it down a notch on affairs of the heart or songs of the heartbeat he can still make the statues weep with his wondrous, plaintive voice. I’m thinking here of the title track and Hush Now Babies and the stunning centrepiece, Mulyawongk, equally concerned with the Murray river bunyip spirit from the Dreamtime as it is with the late Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman from the river country.
“Two years ago,” he says, “I wasn’t really sure whether I would get to do another album or even if I was interested in doing it again. Physically I wasn’t too well and that was to do with losing Ruby. But I really believe coming through that and coming through a stroke then cancer that you have to let go of the pain and get on with life. When I lost Ruby – she’s still with me I still have her and I will never let go of her — but what I had to do was let go of the pain of losing her. And that’s alright. I still have the pain of not knowing my mother or my father but I let go a little bit. It’s still there but it’s not killing me now.”
His message for Aboriginal people and all Australians with a conscience, and also the message from him at this time in his life, is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. For him even though the walk to personal, political or emotional freedoms might seem immense he knows it is still possible to reach a good end or at least find the will to fight for a good end.
“This album talks about getting on with life and going forward. Just keep going no matter what. There will be hurdles but you’re gonna make it. Forget your troubles for a while and get up and dance.”
Into the Bloodstream is a triumphant return and also a courageous return. This is a man who lost everything then lost some more but he has been bold enough to come back to the stage and the spotlight and tell us what he has learned.
Archie Roach is without doubt an important Australian. Politically we can learn from him. Morally too. And also personally because it turns out he can tell us all a thing or too about inner strength and what it is like to fight on and why it is important for every ordinary person to do that.
The record has been produced and arranged impeccably by ARIA award winning producer/arranger, Craig Pilkington of Audrey Studios and, back in the day, the Killjoys. Guests include Paul Kelly, Vika and Linda Bull, Lou Bennett and Emma Donovan. It is treasure.