William Barton To Celebrate Archie Roach At ‘One Song’ Concerts With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

4 July 2023 | 4:44 pm | Ellie Robinson

Later this week, two incredibly special events in Naarm will honour the life, career and legacy of Uncle Archie Roach. William Barton tells TheMusic how they’ll do justice to one of Australia’s most pivotal forces for good.

William Barton

William Barton (Credit: Keith Saunders)

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and mentions of deceased persons.

Words alone could never truly honour the late, great Archie Roach, who over the course of some four decades as a proud Gunditjmara and Bundjalung songman, Indigenous rights activist, renowned community Elder and time-honoured storyteller, steered inexhaustible progress for First Nations peoples in Australia.

Best known among his peers as Uncle Archie, the young Roach cut his teeth on church hymns and Scottish music, which he’d been introduced to as a child by his foster family; as a toddler, Roach and his siblings were forcibly orphaned by government figures, making them children of the Stolen Generation. Music kept his spirits high as he grew up in and learned to navigate a hostile Australia, and in the late ‘80s, he and his future wife, Aunty Ruby Hunter, formed their first band together: The Altogethers.

By the early ‘90s, Uncle Archie had already cemented himself as an icon, with his debut album – 1990’s Charcoal Lane, which featured the anthemic and ever-poignant Took The Children Away – fast being certified Gold and winning two awards at the 1991 ARIAs (Best New Talent and Best Indigenous Release). A year prior, he was honoured with the Australian Human Rights And Equal Opportunity Commission’s first Human Rights Award for songwriting. These kinds of historic accolades were not rare for Uncle Archie, and as the decades sprawled on, so too did his efforts to earn them.

But Uncle Archie was not motivated by success: he cared most about uplifting his communities and those of all Indigenous Australians, bridging the divide between them and western societies. Right up until his devastating passing last July, Roach was dedicated to blazing trails and creating opportunities for his fellow Indigenous artists, no matter how established they may have been. He was among the first to champion some of Australia’s most powerful artists in their formative years – take for example Dan Sultan, Emma Donovan, Jess Hitchcock, Kee’ahn and William Barton.

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Tomorrow (July 5), all five of them will convene at Naarm/Melbourne’s Hamer Hall to honour Uncle Archie at One Song, a concert co-presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), paying tribute to the inimitable talents of a true Australian hero. The show – which will also run on Thursday July 6 – has been orchestrally conducted by Jaime Martín, with music direction from Paul Grabowsky AO and stage direction from Rachael Maza AM (artistic director of the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company). 

A total of 16 acts will take the stage to perform key songs from Uncle Archie’s catalogue: the full list can be found here – alongside tickets and more info on the shows – but highlights include Radical Son, Sally Dastey (of Tiddas fame) and the Dhungala Children’s Choir (conducted by MSO First Nations Chair and Short Black Opera founder Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO).

According to an official synopsis, the One Song concerts will see this legendary roster of boundary-pushing mob “draw on their connections to [Uncle Archie] to bring new life to his iconic songs”. It’s described as “an evening of powerful song and sublime storytelling”, building on the ethos of a show that Uncle Archie himself worked to develop; last February, he and Grabowsky worked to present a formative edition of One Song as his final performance with the MSO. It was named for the last single he ever released, which arrived last March on the compilation album My Songs: 1989–2021.

Integral to these upcoming shows will be the aforementioned William Barton – a proud Kalkadunga man, virtuosic didgeridoo player and renowned composer with close ties to Uncle Archie. Their relationship winds back to the early ‘90s, when as a teenager, Barton and Uncle Archie (alongside Uncle Roger Knox and Barton’s father, Uncle Alf Barton) shared the stage at a NAIDOC Week performance at Long Bay Jail.

Speaking with TheMusic, Barton reminisces on his earliest memories with Uncle Archie: “I toured with Uncle Archie many times – and Aunty Ruby, of course – at the Woodford Folk Festival up in Queensland throughout the mid-1990s. I've got an old photo, actually, with Uncle Archie, Aunty Ruby and [Uncle Archie’s son] Amos that we took near Laurieton, just south of Port Macquarie.”

When the years started weighing down on Uncle Archie and he needed some help to get by, his mob rushed to rally around him; Barton says it was “really special, you know, seeing this musical family embrace Uncle and take care of him on the road”. Particularly when Barton performed with Uncle Archie at the 2020 Sydney Festival, he says, the experience was “really humbling”. It was important that Uncle Archie’s community stuck by his side the whole time, because “he was our Elder”.

That personal connection extended well beyond the music. “We were all very, very, very close with Uncle Archie,” Barton avows. “He didn't have to be there in the same house, living out of the same pockets – but as everyone else would experience, people of that spirit, you connect with them like long lost friends. You could start off a yarn with Uncle Archie as if you’d known him for 20 years. We’re all family, you know? And that resonates beyond Uncle Archie, with all our elders, uncles and aunties, who carry on the legacy of our mob – of all our different mobs around Australia.”

So too does Uncle Archie’s influence “resonate well beyond his songs”, Barton says. “To those of us who have worked with him, we just hold that spirit. We need to keep the spirit of Uncle Archie, and his world, alive – his legacy lives on through all of us. He’s always there, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. The Elders are always present. And that’s why it’s so important to always acknowledge our Elders, and the mobs who created these pathways for us today – like Uncle Archie did, you know? That’s what he did for the Australian music industry, he create the pathway for Indigenous Australians to enter that mainstream flow.”

When Barton first saw the brief for the One Song concerts, he was “thinking out to the vastness of the sea”, reflecting on “the spirit of sharing and gifting that Uncle Archie and Aunty Ruby always evoked”. He says of the concept’s origin: “I want to say it came about organically through the spirit of Uncle Archie and his music, and what it has to give all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. I think there’s just a natural flow to Uncle Archie’s legacy, that the conversations he started will continue be had. 

“And it’s so powerful to have that interpretation from a Western symphony, you know? That orchestral arrangement sitting with Uncle Archie’s message. It’s a pretty special thing to be uniting this Western force of musicality – the intimacy of those classical instruments – with the legacy of our mob going back thousands of years.”

This, Barton asserts, speaks to the power of music as a vehicle to build a bridge between Indigenous mob and Western communities. “It’s a pathway between our worlds,” he says. “The lyrics, you know, that’s the storyline going straight to your heart – whether you’re speaking in English or in Language – and the music is the feeling of what's being conveyed. No matter what you're talking about – from happiness to sorrow business – it’s all out there in the open. And of course, the more you become in tune with that, the more you can interpret from that and have a conversation with your music.”

Ultimately, this week’s One Song concerts are more than just concerts. “I think we're creating a safe space,” Barton says, “as artists who all have a very close and personal connection with Uncle Archie and his family. We’re all connected to each other as well, from various performances and musical journeys over the years. And so it’s the coming together of all out cultures – us mob uniting with the musical force. I think it's going to be a very meaningful concert. I’m really looking forward to connecting with all my brothers and sisters onstage, and paying tribute to one of our leading Elders and songmen. We all share a journey with Uncle Archie in one way or another, and it’s very special for us to be celebrating that.”