WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains an image of a person who has died. Archie Roach passed away on July 30, 2022, and his family has given permission for his name and image to be used.
It’s incredible to think one of the great love stories of our time was determined by the toss of a coin. It was 1973 and Gunditjmara and Bundjalung singer-songwriter Archie Roach had spent a season picking grapes in Mildura, country Victoria, and was ready to move on. Standing on the side of the Sturt Highway, the then-17-year-old decided to flip a coin: heads, he would travel west to Adelaide; tails, he’d head to Melbourne.
It came up heads, so off he went to Adelaide, where he would meet the love of his life: Ruby Hunter.
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“I had just got into Adelaide and decided to get up enough courage to meet the local Aboriginal people,” Roach tells Broadsheet. He was staying at the People’s Palace, cheap accommodation provided by the Salvation Army. “I wouldn’t use the lift because it was one of those old rickety ones, like a cage, so I decided to use the stairs. And that’s when I met Ruby. She came out of the lift with two other people, and I went up to them and asked, ‘Where does everybody gather and drink?’ And that’s when she looked at me and said, ‘Just follow me,’” he chuckles. “And I did. For 38 years.”
Their love story is quietly but powerfully portrayed in a new film, Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow, inspired by fly-on-the-wall footage shot during the couple’s 2004 Melbourne concert, Kura Tungar – Songs From the River, with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra. Directed by Philippa Bateman, the documentary is interwoven with archival interviews, photographs and stunning footage of Ngarrindjeri country in South Australia, shot by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott.
The film gently reveals the tragedies and hardship the artists both endured and their path to healing through music, song and humour.
Now in his sixties, Roach is a well-known artist, author and activist. In 2020, he was inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame and featured on the cover of Rolling Stone as one of the Top 50 Australian singer-songwriters of all time, alongside AC/DC, Sia, Michael Hutchence and Kylie Minogue. His 1990 song Took the Children Away, about the stolen generations, earned him that year’s Australian Human Rights Award – the only singer ever to receive it.
For her part, Hunter – a Ngarrindjeri, Kokatha and Pitjantjatjara woman born by a billabong on the Murray River – was the first Aboriginal woman to be signed to a major record label, releasing her debut album Thoughts Within on Mushroom Records in 1994. Like Roach, she was a respected advocate and mentor to a generation of aspiring young First Nations singer-songwriters.
Together they have performed internationally alongside legends such as Paul Kelly, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Sting. Hunter died from heart failure in 2010, aged 54, but the film doesn't dwell on sadness. Instead, its focus is the profound impact this pair has had.
Both were members of the stolen generations; Roach was taken from his home at an Aboriginal mission in Victoria aged three before being fostered, and Hunter was removed from her semi-traditional life in the Coorong in 1964 and also fostered. It was Hunter who helped Roach rediscover music after his early introduction through a foster family, the Coxes. He, in turn, inspired Hunter to write.
“Ruby was the first person to hear any of my songs. I’d bounce them off her and she’d give the thumbs up to the songs. Once that happened, she started to write her own songs,” Roach says. “I loved her music and the way she wrote. She had this honesty – she’d sit down and write whatever came from her heart and her head – whereas sometimes I’d sit and think, ‘What’s a better way of saying that?’, which can be a bit dishonest when you’re writing.”
Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow details the healing, quietly educative effects of music. “Music makes things more palatable for people to listen to,” says Roach. “Sometimes you can’t talk to somebody about something, but you can write a song and sing it to them instead. The process of writing the song is in itself therapeutic when it comes to helping you heal.”
At the time, the concert Kura Tungar was heralded as an act of reconciliation, held four years before Kevin Rudd made his historic apology to the stolen generations. Does Roach feel much progress has been made since then?
“A lot has changed. You’ve got to look at a grassroots level, you can’t look at the top. Look from the ground up and there’s a lot of good things: communities getting together and having reconciliation days and sorry days,” he says. “A lot has changed in the schools actually, they’re being more educated about the history, things that took place that weren’t all that good. So there’s more awareness, more understanding.”