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Barbara Allen (song)

"Barbara Allen"
Published 17th century (earliest known)
Form Broadside ballad and folksong
Writer Traditional
Language English

"Barbara Allen" (Child 84, Roud 54) is a traditional ballad originating in England and Scotland, which immigrants introduced to the United States, where it became a popular folk song.[1] Roud and Bishop described it as, "...far and away the most widely collected song in the English language — equally popular in England, Scotland and Ireland, and with hundreds of versions collected over the years in North America."[2]


A diary entry by Samuel Pepys on January 2, 1666 contains the earliest extant reference to the song. In it, he recalls the fun and games at a New Years party:[3]
"...but above all, my dear Mrs Knipp whom I sang; and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen."

From this, Roud & Bishop inferred the song was popular at the time. They suggested that it may have been written for stage performance, as Elizabeth Knepp was a professional actress, singer, and dancer.[2]

One 1690 broadside of the song was published in London under the loquacious title "Barbara Allen's cruelty: or, the young-man's tragedy. With Barbara Allen's [l]amentation for her unkindness to her lover, and her self".[4] Additional printing were common in Britain throughout the eighteenth century, several of which were printed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh or Aberdeen indicating that the song was of Scottish or northern English origin. The ballad was first printed in the United States in 1836.[citation needed] Many variations of the song continued to be printed on broadsides in the United States through the 19th and 20th centuries. It was also passed orally and spread by inclusion in songbooks and newspaper columns, along with other popular ballads such as "The Farmer's Curst Wife" and "The Golden Vanity".[5]


File:Forget Me Not Songster - Barbara Allen p.1.jpg
Illustration from 1840 printing in the Forget Me Not Songster

Although renditions of the song can vary considerably in plot, they generally follow a common narrative. A young man lies dying for the love of Barbara Allen; he has a servant summon her to his bedside for solace, but she does little but scorn him. Denied his true love, the hero succumbs to illness; in some versions, he leaves her an inheritance before dying.[6] Upon hearing the church bells of his funeral, Barbara Allen regrets her decision and senses that her own death is near. She too dies of heartbreak, and they are buried beside one another.[7] The song often concludes with a "rose-briar motif" of several stanzas describing floral growth on the lovers' neighboring graves, symbolising fidelity in love even after death.[8] This motif is shared with other ballads, including "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Lord Lovel", and "Fair Margaret and Sweet William".[9]


Variations of the song collected by ethnomusicologists in England follow a regular form, with some common variations. Francis Child's A version, which was drawn from Ramsey's Tea-Table Miscellany printed in 1740, goes thus:

It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a falling,
That Sir John Graeme in the west country
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
He sent his men down through the town,
To the place where she was dwelling:
'O haste and come to my master dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allan.'
O Hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying,
And when she drew the curtain by,
'Young man, I think you're dying.'
O it's I'm sick, and very, very sick,
And 't is a' Barbara Allan:'
'O the better for me ye's never be,
Tho your heart's blood were a spilling.
O dinna ye mind, young man,' said she,
'When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?'
He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
'Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allan.'
And slowly, slowly raise she up,
And slowly, slowly left him,
And sighing said, she coud not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.
She had not gane a mile but two
When she heartd the death-bell ringing,
And every jow that the death-bell geid,
It cry'd, Woe to Barbara Allan!
'O mother, mother make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow!
Since my love died for me to-day,
I'll die for him to-morrow.'


"Barbara Allen" has been published and spread under many different titles. The ballad and its heroine have in conjunction been called "The Ballet of Barbara Allen", "Barbara Allen's Cruelty", "Barbarous Ellen",[7] "Edelin", "Hard Hearted Barbary Ellen", "Sad Ballet Of Little Johnnie Green", "Sir John Graham", "Bonny Barbara Allan", "Barbry Allen" among others.[10]

The ballad form of "Barbara Allen"—copies exist in special collections at the British Library, the Huntington Library, and the National Library of Scotland—most often features quatrains with various rhyme schemes, and most last lines of the quatrains end with a refrain of sorts by repeating the name, Barbara Allen.[11]

The setting is sometimes "Scarlet Town". This may be a punning reference to Reading, as a slip-song version c. 1790 among the Madden songs at Cambridge University Library has 'In Reading town, where I was bound.' London town and Dublin town are used in other versions. The story usually takes place "in the merry month of May" although some versions place it in the autumn. The young man who dies of a broken heart is usually called Sweet William or some slight variant such as young Willie Grove or sweet Willie Graeme. In other versions the name is Sir John Graeme or Jemmye Grove. Some versions of the ballad explain Barbara's "cruelty" by revealing that she believed the young man slighted her first.[12][13]

Roger Quilter wrote an arrangement in 1921, dedicated to the noted Irish baritone Frederick Ranalow, who had become famous for his performance as Macheath in The Beggar's Opera at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Quilter set each verse differently, using countermelodies as undercurrents. An octave B with a bare fifth tolls like a bell in the fourth verse. A short piano interlude before the fifth verse was commented on favourably by Percy Grainger.[14] Quilter later incorporated the setting in his Arnold Book of Old Songs, rededicated to his late nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, and published in 1950.[15]

Contemporary renditions

Versions of the song were recorded in the 1950s and 60s by folk revivalists. Jean Ritchie and Joan Baez both released versions of it in 1961.[16] Bob Dylan said that folk songs were highly influential on him, writing in a poem that "[w]ithout "Barbara Allen there'd be no "Girl From the North Country"; Dylan performed a live eight-minute rendition in 1962 which was subsequently released on Live at The Gaslight 1962. [17]

It was covered by Art Garfunkel in 1973 on the album Angel Clare, by the band Dando Shaft on the album Kingdom in 1977 and surprisingly, by John Travolta in the 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long.

Influence on popular culture

The song has been featured as a dramatic device in numerous films of cultural significance. It has been included in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon Robin Hood Daffy, the 1951 film Scrooge (released in the United States as A Christmas Carol), the 1940 film Tom Brown's School Days, Jane Campion's Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano, and the 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long.[citation needed]

Over time, the song has been adapted and retold in numerous non-musical venues. Howard Richardson and William Berney's 1942 stage play Dark of the Moon is based on the ballad, as a reference to the influence of English, Irish and Scottish folktales and songs in Appalachia. It was also retold as a radio drama on the program Suspense, which aired October 20, 1952 and was entitled "The Death of Barbara Allen" with Anne Baxter in the titular role. A British radio play titled Barbara Allen featured Honeysuckle Weeks and Keith Barron; it was written by David Pownall[18] and premiered on BBC Radio 7 February 16, 2009.[19]


A Florida State Prison recording of this song.

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  1. ^ Theodore Raph, The American Song Treasury: 100 Favorites, Dover Publications (October 1, 1986), pg. 20; and Arthur Gribben, ed., The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America, University of Massachusetts Press (March 1, 1999), pg. 112.
  2. ^ a b Roud, Steve & Julia Bishop (2012). The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs. Penguin. pp. 406–7. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5. 
  3. ^ Pepys, Samuel. "Diary of Samuel Pepys — Volume 41: January/February 1665-66". Project Gutenberg. Pepys - Diary - Vol 41 
  4. ^ "English Short-title Catalogue, "Barbara Allen’s cruelty: or, the young-man’s tragedy."". British Library. Retrieved May 8, 2012. 
  5. ^ Post, Jennifer (2004). Music in Rural New England. Lebanon, NH: University of New Hampshire Press. pp. 27–9. ISBN 1-58465-415-5. 
  6. ^ Child, Francis James (1965). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol. 2. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. pp. 276–9. 
  7. ^ a b Coffin, Tristram P. (1950). The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Philadelphia, PA: The American Folklore Society. pp. 87–90. 
  8. ^ Würzbach, Natascha; Simone M. Salz (1995). Motif Index of the Child Corpus: The English and Scottish Popular Ballad. Gayna Walls (trans.). Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 25, 57. ISBN 3-11-014290-2. 
  9. ^ Coffin, Tristram P. (1950). The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society. pp. 76–9, 87–90,. 
  10. ^ Keefer, Jane (2011). "Barbara/Barbry Allen". Ibiblio. Retrieved January 16, 2013. 
  11. ^ "EBBA". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  12. ^ "The Ballad of Barbara Allen by Anonymous". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Bonny Barbara Allan, Traditional Ballads, English Poetry I: from Chaucer to Gray". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  14. ^ Valerie Langfield, Roger Quilter: His Life and Music, p.202
  15. ^ Music Web International
  16. ^ Wilentz, Sean; Marcus, Greil. The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 13–4. 
  17. ^ Wilentz 1938, p. 14-15.
  18. ^ "Barabara Allen by David Pownall". Radio Drama Retrieved June 11, 2013. 
  19. ^ "David Pownall - Barbara Allen broadcast history". BBC Online. Retrieved June 11, 2013. 

External links