Home arts Words & Music Words & Music



Words & Music

May 2012

  • Phil Kakulas

Took The Children Away
Archie Roach

In the skilled hands of the songwriter, the range and complexity of human experience may be captured in a few carefully chosen words and a simple melody. Took The Children Away by Archie Roach communicates the devastating impact of Australia’s assimilation policy on Aboriginal families using just three chords and Roach’s own autobiographical story. This intense and plaintive ballad has become an anthem for those whose share its tragic story and was an important milestone toward Australia’s formal recognition of the Stolen Generations.  

Took The Children Away was the first single from Roach’s 1990 debut album Charcoal Lane. Other songs like Bob Randall’s early 70s release Brown Skin Baby had dealt with the experiences of the Stolen Generations before. What made Roach’s song significant was that it was embraced not just by the Aboriginal community but by the wider community as well, resulting in a profound shift in public sentiment on the subject. The song won two Aria Awards and an International Human Rights Achievement Award, propelling Roach, at the age of 34, on to the national stage and beyond with Bob Geldof and Paul Simon to count among his admirers. 

It had been a long and hard road for the singer/songwriter, who has spoken of how he grew up ignorant of his biological family until a letter from an unknown sister arrived telling him of the recent death of their mother. Angry and disillusioned Roach left his foster home in his mid-teens. Years of living rough followed, as Roach pursued an itinerant lifestyle (including stints as a tent boxer) for more than a decade before finding stability with soul mate and collaborator, the late Ruby Hunter. By the late 80s the two were playing folk clubs and country music festivals before a television appearance seen by Paul Kelly’s guitarist Steve Connolly led to Roach’s guest appearance opening for the group at the Concert Hall in Melbourne in November 1989. 

In his book How To Make Gravy, Kelly tells of watching Roach from side of stage that night as he closed his short set with 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 in the hall.’ Audience member and writer Martin Flanagan agreed, enthusing that Roach did ‘something magical, raising the darkness of the past, telling it in truth, but with a largeness that excluded no-one…’ At the song’s conclusion there was a stunned silence. Roach, mistaking this for disapproval, walked off before an emphatic round of applause broke out across the auditorium. The audience was awed by the undeniable power of a singer armed with nothing but his dignity, three chords and the truth.

Stylistically, Took The Children Away is a mid-tempo ballad based around a simple chord progression that recalls the songs Roach has described hearing in his childhood by country and soul artists like Hank Williams and Sam Cooke. The narrative of the song details that ‘one dark day on Framlingham’, the Aboriginal mission in Gippsland Victoria, when welfare workers and police arrived to forcibly remove three year old Roach and his siblings from their parents. Roach has said that it was his Uncle Banjo, who was present the day he was taken, who encouraged him to write the song and provided much of the detail he was too young to remember. The lyric is heartbreaking in its directness without recourse to symbolism or elaboration. The traumatic events are allowed to speak for themselves. 

Mother’s tears were falling down
Dad shaped up and stood his ground.
He said you touch my kids and you fight me
And they took us from our family

The chorus is pure lamentation. ‘They took the children away’, sings Roach, gently and repeatedly – an insurmountable fact that still beggars belief.

Took The Children Away ends on a note of healing. ‘The children came back’ sings Roach in acknowledgement of those who eventually found their way home to their families and their heritage. ‘Back to their mother, back to their father,’ he sings, ‘back to their people, back to their land’. For Archie Roach the way back started long ago, when as little more than a child he set out to piece together his own shattered identity and in the process wrote one of the most important songs for and of his generation. 


Phil Kakulas is a songwriter and musician who plays double bass in The Blackeyed Susans.




Latest Edition

February Issue
February Issue
January Issue
January Issue
December Issue
December Issue


Stars Of The Lid – Goodnight