Ruby Hunter came into the world on the banks of the Murray River in South Australia in 1955. As she was immersed in the billabong waters, her mother knew little of what the future would hold for her and her siblings. Growing up on the Coorong, Ruby remembered hearing stories told on the banks of the river about Pondi the Giant Cod who cleared the way upstream for her ancestors.
But at the tender age of 8, while Ruby’s Ngarrindjeri country was still running hot in her veins, her connection was severely interrupted as a black car arrived to take her brothers and sisters to The Seaforth Children's Home. For Ruby, nothing in those nightly gatherings on country could have prepared her for the institutionalisation of the state welfare system and the foster homes she would face until the age of 15 years. Her final destination in state care was Vaughan House for wayward girls in Adelaide. Ruby had been placed there after a dispute over the washing up with her foster brother.
By her 16th year Victoria Square was Adelaide’s nunga (gathering place). It was a time when Ruby learnt the hardest lessons of her life – how to live and survive on the streets. However, whilst Ruby developed tenacity for survival, she had not learnt how to protect her physical state. It was Aunty Sissy her took her under her wing and taught her how to fight with her fists. Another thing she learnt was how to block out memories with alcohol. The streets of Adelaide soon began to give her a sense of belonging. “I made the streets my home 'cause I never really had a home,“ she said of this time.
But Ruby’s life was to change suddenly again. In the aptly named ‘Peoples Palace’, she met her soul mate, a shy Bundjalung and Gunditjmara man called Archie Roach. They spoke the same language - that of the disposed and the isolated, which Archie voiced through his music.
For Ruby, Archie’s words held an intimate truth that touched her very soul. His story was hers. Together they began to forge a life together. They also began the search for members of their biological families, but neither ever found their mothers.
By the mid-1980’s Ruby had given up alcohol, she and Archie had formed a band called The Altogethers, and moved to Melbourne. It was in the Three Weeds Hotel in Rozelle, Sydney that I first heard Ruby Hunter sing. I’ll never forget it. The crowd had been pumping, when a quiet man began to speak into the microphone. He introduced his life partner with a “hey you mob, we got somin’ good for yam,” as a beautiful woman beside him beamed at a captivated audience. As the lyrics “this story’s right, this story’s true, I would not tell lies to you” echoed out onto the footpath, people passing stopped. I had never witnessed music as a healing tool until that moment. That night, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter struck a chord with a public that would become their loyal supporters.
By the end of the decade and into the 90’s with Ruby by his side, Archie received the Human Rights Award and his album Charcoal Lane was released. Produced by Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly it included the track Down City Streets written by Ruby. By 1994 Ruby would be the first Aboriginal woman to be signed by one of the major recording studios in Australia with her debut album Thoughts Within.
By 2000 Ruby had released her second album Feeling Good which was a reflection of her personal demons and social issues pertaining to women. The next decade saw her work in film with the documentary The Land of Little Kings and the award winning feature film One Night the Moon opposite Kelton Pell as the trackers wife.
But it was the new theatrical work Ruby’s Story when she worked in collaboration with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra where Ruby truly found her forte. When Archie spoke of their love, you could see the princess he described and the woman who he not only fell in love with, but whom a nation took to heart. Ruby’s Story won the 2004 Deadly Award for Excellence in Film and Theatrical Score.
Towards the end of 2009, on a stifling summer day in a studio in Darlinghurst, I had the honour of doing an interview with both Archie and Ruby and as we spoke of Christmas and waited for the lighting angle to be adjusted, I looked over at Ruby who looked exhausted. “Would you like a break mum?” Archie asked. “No dad” she said, “we will get this finished for Rhoda. This is a good show Living Strong, yeah, we gotta get healthy.” Ruby talked about the success of the Black Arm band and was excited about the upcoming tour that was dedicated to the spirit of healing and reconciliation.
In the arms of Archie, Ruby passed on to her special place in the Dreaming on Wednesday 17 February 2010 at her home in south-west Victoria . Her voice will remain with us through the music that connected so many.
This article appeared in Vol 3 Issue 32 of The Art of Healing