An Exploration of Traditional & Contemperary Balladry
Child Ballad #
In Scarlet town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin'
Made every youth cry Well-a-day,
Her name was Barb'ra Allen.
All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin'
Young Willie Grove on his death-bed lay,
For love of Barb'ra Allen.
He sent his servant to her door
To the town where he was dwellin'
Haste ye come, to my master's call,
If your name be be Barb'ra Allen.
So slowly, slowly got she up,
And slowly she drew nigh him,
And all she said when there she came:
"Young man, I think you're dying!"
He turned his face unto the wall
And death was drawing nigh him.
Good bye, Good bye to dear friends all,
Be kind to Bar'bra Allen
When he was dead and laid in grave,
She heard the death bell knelling.
And every note, did seem to say
Oh, cruel Barb'ra Allen
"Oh mother, mother, make my bed
Make it soft and narrow
Sweet William died, for love of me,
And I shall of sorrow."
They buried her in the old churchyard
Sweet William's grave was neigh hers
And from his grave grew a red, red rose
From hers a cruel briar.
They grew and grew up the old church spire
Until they could grow no higher
And there they twined, in a true love knot,
The red, red rose and the briar.
In my thirty years of singing, I have had three request to sing "Barbara Allen," and I remember each time as a golden moment. So here's to you--Judy, Laurie, and Scott Alaric--this song deserves to be heard, savored, and remembered.
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:
"...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.
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". 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. 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".
Illustration from 1840 printing in theForget 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. 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. 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. This motif is shared with other ballads, including "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Lord Lovel", and "Fair Margaret and Sweet William".