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Streets of Forbes
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Streets of Forbes / The Death of Ben Hall
; Ballad Index
Martyn Wyndham-Read sang The Death of Ben Hall and The Streets of Forbes in 1966 on his W&G album Australian Songs, and he recorded The Streets of Forbes again in 1970 on his Trailer album Ned Kelly and That Gang. He noted on the first album:
[…] One of the Donahue ballads compares its hero with “bold Robin Hood”. This is a recurrent theme in Australian bushranger ballads. The Death of Ben Hall records that “No petty, mean or pilfering act he ever stooped to do, But robbed the rich and hearty man and scorned to rob the poor”. The tradition of the noble bushranger was a continuous one but the social setting was different. The wave of bushranging in the 1860s and 1870s came out of the conflict between large landholders and struggling small selectors which followed the gold rushes and land legislation of the ’60s. Ben Hall was a small grazier in the Riverina, he took to the roads as a result of persecution by the police and his wife’s desertion. He was associated with the famous bushrangers Johnny Gilbert and ‘Darky’ Gardiner and was shot in a battle with the police in 1864.
Most of the bushrangers of these years came from selector families (usually Irish). Their songs were popular in the selector community and expressed a primitive rebellion that had much in common with Irish nationalist sentiment. This Ben Hall ballad comes from Sally Sloane, a fine traditional singer who learnt it as a young girl in Parkes (New South Wales) about the turn of the century. The midwife who attended Sally’s birth was a sister-in-law of Ben Hall.
The Streets of Forbes is another Ben Hall ballad. It records the shameful public display made by the police of Hall’s bullet-ridden body apparently as a warning to other ’wild colonial boys”. The ballad was written in Irish “come all ye” style by the dead bushranger’s brother-in-law, John Maguire, who witnessed the police procession through Forbes.
Martin Carthy sang Streets of Forbes on his 1968 album with Dave Swarbrick, But Two Came By, This track was also included on his compilation albums This Is… Martin Carthy (1971) and A Collection (1999). He noted:
Ben Hall was probably the most notorious of all Australian bushrangers. Driven out of his home by brute force he took to the bush and for many years was the terror of the countryside. However, eventually he and two of his partners, John Gibson and John Dunn, decided to give up and to try and make a fresh start in America. To this end they split up, arranging to meet at the boat sailing for America, but on the road Hall was waylaid by police with aboriginal trackers and shot, and his body with his feet tied to the stirrups of this horse was dragged through the streets of Forbes to show the inhabitants that he was finally dead. Collectors named the song The Streets of Forbes but to traditional singers it was know simply as The Death of Ben Hall. Learned from Australian singer Trevor Lucas.
Trevor Lucas recorded The Streets of Forbes a few years later accompanied by Dave Swarbrick too for the 1971 album The Great Australian Legend. This track was included in the 2003 Dave Swarbrick anthology Swarb!. A.L. Lloyd commented on the LP’s backside:
Some say the words of this song were written by Jacky [Maguire], the partner and brother-in-law of Ben Hall. As the legend goes, [Maguire] was sitting on the verandah of a shop when the cavalcade went by with Hall’s bullet-ridden body strapped to a pack-horse, and the scene inspired the composition of the poem. Our knowledge of the tune comes from John Manifold, who reports that a lady sang it to him in the back room of a pub. It is an unusual melody.
and in the accompanying booklet:
During the heyday of the bushrangers, many shepherds and smallholders had friendly contact with the outlaws, and would sometimes shelter them from the authorities—a hospitality that carried its special dangers. A young cattleman, Ben Hall, himself the son of a convict, was known to be friendly with the bushranger Frank Gardiner, and perhaps it was on this account that the police arrested Hall on a trumped-up charge and, while he was in gaol, the authorities burnt down his homestead and left his cattle to starve. In fury and despair, Hall turned bushranger and for some three years he and his gang terrorised the district between Bathurst and Forbes, N.S.W., till finally, early in the morning of 5 May 1865, the police came upon Ben Hall alone and asleep by the banks of the Goobank Creek, and the outlaw was shot by the aborigine Billy Dargin, employed by the police as a tracker. It is said that the police, unable to believe the bushranger was dead, fired thirty bullets into his body, then washed the corpse in the creek, strapped it to a horse and let it in triumph to the township of Forbes. Several ballads testify to the popular admiration for Ben Hall, and the general sympathy for his horrid end.
June Tabor sang Streets of Forbes in 1977 on her album Ashes and Diamonds. This track was also included in the June Tabor anthology The Definitive Collection.
Gerry Hallom sang Streets of Forbes in 1981 on his Fellside album Travellin’ Down the Castlereagh. He noted:
Ben Hall (1838-1865) was born of convict parents in Western New South Wales. The local troopers seemed to deal out continual harassment to Ben, and during an internment, his stock perished, his house was burned down and his family life ruined. Its easy to accept that Ben was goaded into a life on the road, bailing up the gold traffic between the West and Sydney. Although he exasperated the troopers for more than three years, there is no record of him killing anyone, and his character doesn’t come under the same suspicion as that of Ned Kelly. An old friend of Ben’s, an aboriginal called Billy Dargin, tracked Ben down for the troopers, who shot him 32 times, a measure of their frustration. Neither then or now was there public acclaim for this act. The words are attributed to Hall’s brother-in-law, John [Maguire].
Mara! sang Streets of Forbes in 1984 on their Plant Life album Images.
Martin Simpson played the tune of Streets of Forbes on his 1989 album Leaves of Life.
Niamh Parsons sang Streets of Forbes in 1992 on her Greentrax album Loosely Connected.
Ian Giles sang The Streets of Forbes (The Death of Ben Hall) in 1997 on his WildGoose CD The Amber Triangle. He noted:
From the Penguin Book of Australian Folk Songs, narrating the events leading up to, and the eventual shooting of, this bold bushranger. A ‘prad’ incidentally, is a horse.
Chris & Siobhan Nelson recorded Streets of Forbes for their 2006 album, Day Has Dawned.
Danny Spooner sang The Streets of Forbes on his 2008 CD Brave Bold Boys. He noted:
Collected by Joy Durst, the song is said to have been written by Ben Hall’s brother-in-law John [Maguire] who in 1865 witnessed the bizarre police procession of the bushranger’s body through Forbes in NSW. Ben Hall was regarded as a gentlemanly bushranger, like Robin Hood, “He never robbed a needy man/His records best will show.” His history was a travesty of injustice. Hunted from his farm by authorities, betrayed by his wife, his ‘banker’ Mick Conolly, and by a black tracker and one-time school mate Bill Dargin, the bushranger was riddled with bullets as he lay sleeping. His body was then paraded through the township as a warning to would-be lawbreakers.
Alex Cumming and Nicola Beazley sang Street of Forbes on their 2016 CD Across the Water. They commented:
This song tells the tale of the death of Ben Hall, a bushranger from Australia. It is not known where this song comes from though some have linked the writing of it with John [Maguire], Ben Hall’s brother in law. Alex learnt this from the great Australian singer, James Fagan.
Varo sang Street of Forbes in 2020 on their eponymous first album, Varo. They noted:
We learned this Australian Folk song from June Tabor’s album Ashes and Diamonds. It tells the tragic story of one of the most well known and beloved Australian outlaws of the 19th century, bushranger Ben Hall who was shot dead by police in 1865. It is believed that the lyrics may have been written by Ben’s brother-in-law John [Maguire], who witnessed Ben’s corpse being paraded by police through the streets of Forbes. When first hearing to this song we were immediately struck by the melody and the lyrics which tell this sad story so vividly, almost like a painting.
Martin Carthy sings Streets of Forbes
Come all of you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,
Concerning of a bushranger who to misfortune fell.
His name it was Ben Hall, and a man of high renown,
Who was taken from his homestead and like a dog shot down.
For three years he roamed the range, and he showed the traps some fun,
One thousand pounds was offered with Gibson and John Dunn.
Till parted from his comrades, the outlaw did agree
To give away bushranging and to cross the raging sea.
Ben went to Goobang Creek and that was his own downfall,
For riddled like a sieve was valiant Ben Hall.
It was early in the morning all on the fifth of May,
That the seven police surrounded him as in his sleep he lay.
Bill Dungan he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead.
The others fired madly as though they were afraid,
Then they bundled up his body and they tied it to his prad,
And they dragged him through the streets of Forbes to show the prize they had.
Trevor Lucas sings The Streets of Forbes
Come all of you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,
Concerning of a hero bold who through misfortune fell.
His name it was Ben Hall, a man of good renown,
Who was hunted from his homestead and like a dog shot down.
For three years he roamed the roads, and he showed the traps some fun,
A thousand pounds was on his head with Gilbert and John Dunn.
Ben parted from his comrades, the outlaws did agree
For to give away bushrangin’ and cross the raging sea.
Ben went to Goobang Creek and that was his downfall,
For riddled like a sieve was valiant Ben Hall.
’Twas early in the morning all on the fifth of May,
When the seven police surrounded him as in his sleep he lay.
Bill Dungan he was chosen for to shoot the outlaw dead.
All the others fired madly as though they were afraid,
Then they rolled him in the blanket and strapped him to his prad,
And they led him through the streets of Forbes for to show the prize they had.
Martin Carthy’s version transcribed by Garry Gillard and Trevor Lucas’ version by Reinhard Zierke.