'Songs From The Kitchen Table’: New Book Celebrates Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter

15 November 2023 | 2:38 pm | Jeff Jenkins

When Archie and his manager were compiling a new book of lyrics he and Ruby Hunter wrote together, there was one obvious title.

Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter

Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter (Source: Supplied)

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and images of people who have died.

The kitchen table was where Archie Roach did his best work. Maton guitar in hand, cup of tea in front of him, crafting the deeply personal songs that taught us so much about our nation.

When Archie and his manager, Jill Shelton, were compiling a new book that gathered the lyrics of the songs he and Ruby Hunter had written, there was one obvious title: Songs From The Kitchen Table.

Paul Kelly remembers gathering around the kitchen table with Archie and Ruby when he and co-producer Steve Connolly were discussing Archie’s debut album, Charcoal Lane. “Cold roast lamb sandwiches and endless cups of tea. Kids running in and out. Singing songs back and forth over months, getting to know each other.”

Jill Shelton got to know Archie and Ruby when she was managing Tiddas. She, too, remembers meetings at the kitchen table, “the hub for all our creative endeavours and the place where we forged our deep friendship”.

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The book honours one of the greatest partnerships in Australian music. “Archie and Ruby: salt and pepper,” Paul Kelly notes. “Heart and soul. Talk about one you talk about the other.”

Ultimately, the book is a celebration of the songs. The remarkable body of work that Archie and Ruby created. “They found each other in their young drinking days and fought their way through that,” Kelly says. “Wrote their way through.”

Kelly believes that Archie became as much philosopher as songwriter, creating “big wide love songs”.

The book is filled with insightful anecdotes about Archie and Ruby’s catalogue, going back to Open Your Eyes, which Archie says was “the first song I ever penned sober”. It was created while Archie and Ruby were trying to quit drinking at Galiamble, a rehab centre in St Kilda. “Hey Ruby, I think I’ve written a song,” Archie declared.

“Nah, ya haven’t,” Ruby replied. But she was suitably impressed when Archie sang the song for her. “Well, yeah, that’s pretty good!”

“That song helped me to deal with all the grief I had experienced up until then,” Archie said. “It was the first time I realised poetry and songwriting are similar, and about the healing power of music. A lot of my healing is in my song lyrics.”

Eleanor McKay, the former head of Mushroom’s White label, remembers Ruby as “a force of nature – a mighty spirit in a tiny package”.

Julie Hickson, who managed the couple from 1991 to 2003, says Ruby “had no intention of living in Archie’s shadow. She had important things she wanted to say about her own experience and that of other Aboriginal women.” She became the first Indigenous woman to sign to a major label, with Mushroom releasing her debut solo album, Thoughts Within, in 1994.

Emma Donovan explains how much it meant to see Ruby Hunter on Rage. “I couldn’t believe I was seeing an Aboriginal woman in a music clip on TV [and] she was just like my mother and my aunties. She helped me understand a lot about my situations and songs. Because of her, I became braver to tell any story I wanted.”

When Ruby was working on her second solo album, Feeling Good, with producers Mick Thomas and Craig Pilkington, she had one demand – she wanted to do a duet with Renée Geyer. No worries, they said. Only problem? Neither of them knew the singer. But they made it happen. And it was a highlight of the record. “So much experience, so many stories between them,” Thomas says. “And such a privilege to work with them both.”

Recent Music Victoria Hall of Fame inductee Kutcha Edwards explained how Archie and Ruby weren’t just telling their own story. “It was as if they had written those songs for and about me too. How did they know what I had gone through?”

The book features Archie talking candidly about his struggles with fame. “It all seemed strange and I was not quite sure what to make of it all. At first, the attention on me was crazy. Sometimes I had to sit there all day, doing interviews for newspapers and magazines. It got to the stage where I just didn’t want to talk to anyone anymore about my life.”

But Archie never tired of singing Took The Children Away. “Music, for me, is healing,” he explained. “Every time I sing this song I let a little bit of the pain go each time, and one day I am going to be sitting here singing it and it’s going to leave me completely and I’ll be free.”

The Age’s Indigenous affairs reporter Jack Latimore has written eloquently about Uncle Archie for many years. “How many different ways should it have to be said that the man was a living legend in a dozen different directions, including Australia’s contested national narrative,” he asks. “And he was a living legend for at least three decades before he left us. Not too many lives in this country are lived in that context, particularly when it comes to Blackfullas.”

Latimore recounts a conversation with Linda Bull about Archie’s famous first big gig – supporting Paul Kelly in 1990 at Melbourne’s Concert Hall, now known as Hamer Hall. “The voice and his whole demeanour, there was nothing like it,” Bull recalls. “I’d never heard or seen before the effect that his voice had on such a massive group of people.”

Shelton – who became Archie’s manager in 2007 – refers to what she called Archie’s “spiritual bowser”, which enabled the exhilarating exchange of energy between Archie and his audience. “On stage, in front of all those he called family, I saw him transform through his spiritual connection to his audience. He came to life; a palpable energy, a lifeline in action.”

Latimore compares Archie’s work to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Dylan. “Archie was their equal as a writer, a journalist, an entertainer, a cultural authority, a man of high degree.”

Tiddas – Amy Saunders, Lou Bennett and Sally Dastey – sang on Archie’s second album, Jamu Dreaming. “Arch inspired me to write the stories that we grew up with,” Bennett says, “the stories that we weren’t told in schools when I was growing up about our families, about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Archie inspired many artists. “He was never about ‘us and them’, he was just about ‘us’ as a people,” Troy Cassar-Daley says. “I carry his example with me every time I set foot on a stage anywhere.”

David Bridie, who produced Jamu Dreaming – which Archie called his favourite-sounding album – admired Archie’s songwriting: “Direct, gentle lyrics with a boxing glove hidden underneath.”

Another producer, Richard Pleasance, was in awe of Archie’s voice. “If he had a weapon it would be his voice. He could take down armies with his beautiful voice and lyrics. They would pack up and go home.”

Pleasance produced Small Child, which Archie called “probably my favourite song … a song about my spirit, which I liken to a small child, that inner voice that guides me through life”.

When Ruby Hunter died suddenly in 2010, Archie was devastated. “I was not really sure if I was going to continue to play music anymore. When you lose your partner in life, someone you’ve known for 38 years, you’re lost. I didn’t know where to go from there.”

The following year, Archie was diagnosed with lung cancer. But he managed to go on and create two of the finest albums of his career: 2012’s Into The Bloodstream and 2016’s Let Love Rule. “Pain can also bring about change in one’s life for the better,” Archie believed. “We can choose to ignore the pain until it becomes unbearable or we can do something about it.”

A new song, I’m Gonna Fly, has been released to coincide with the book. Archie wrote the song with Ellie Lovegrove, who he mentored in the mid-2010s. “It’s incredible when you have the opportunity to share space with someone whose spirit and energy stirs your inner being with its mere presence,” Lovegrove says.

It now sounds like a poignant farewell. “So I’m gonna fly,” Lovegrove sings. “Time to let go.”

“Uncle Archie was a gift to us all,” Lovegrove adds. “A man who endured so much yet continued to give selflessly and with such great humility. This is why he is one of the greatest musicians and teachers of his generation.”

When Jill Shelton was discussing the songbook idea with Archie, who died last year, he had just one request: “Make it good, Jill.”

She didn’t let him down. Both celebration and tribute, the book is filled with more than 100 songs to soothe the soul. Songs of grace, healing and power. As Paul Kelly observes, “The kitchen table kept on giving.”