Song Profile: The Streets of Forbes

The Streets of Forbes
This Australian folk song appears on our CD, The Life of Riley’s Brother, and was recorded on August 10, 1995. We started work on it just after 8 p.m. that evening, after a long day in the studio during which time we got good working tracks of Yeshe in the Garden and Step it Out Mary. We spent about three hours that night working on Streets and managed, in that time, to get a good basic track. We wanted to get a distinctively Australian ambiance for this song about a 19th century Australian bushranger (outlaw), so we had our friend Paul Taylor in to record didgeridoo and bull-roarer. Our producer, Tim O’Brien, added a bouzouki track. It was probably the hardest and most productive working day of the whole recording session. 

The idea of performing — and then recording — The Streets of Forbes  had started out with a cassette tape of the 1968 Martin Carthy/Dave Swarbrick recording, But Two Came By. The album was long out of print so this tape, acquired from Doug Berch I think, was precious. I’d made a copy for Mike and one day at rehearsal he started playing the opening guitar lick. It was decided pretty much there and then to work it up and see what happened. Very soon we started finding an eerie quality in the song, which is also known as The Death of Ben Hall and was written (it is said) by his brother-in-law, John McGuire. I think it was the detail of tying the body to his horse and parading it through the streets of the town that was the pivotal image in that eerie feeling that we got. But I think, too, that the idea that Ben Hall had decided to “put away bushranging” and then been killed before he managed to make a new life lends the song a tragic quality.

In any case, we worked hard that night to get a good basic track. The next day, Friday the 11th, we started in the studio at noon and added the clicky-sticks (or clapsticks, an aboriginal percussion instrument) and the bowed cymbal (not Australian, but it sounds cool and eerie…) As I recall, Mike played the clicky sticks and maybe even the bowed cymbal. Then we decided to re-record the vocal which was much better this time around— being rested was a help. 

We did have to fight  to keep this track. Usually the producer gets final thumbs up or down and I recall that Tim O’Brien wasn’t particularly convinced that the track worked. Later on, Charles Sawtelle, who mixed the recording, expressed his doubts, too — as I recall, the name Spike Jones came up briefly. But I think we won Charles over and we did keep the track. It remains something of an oddity in our oeuvre, I suppose, but we still take it out and dust it off and perform it once in a while. And now Mike gets to play the bass harmonica on it — which sounds much like a didgeridoo. 


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