Barbara Allen / Barbary Allen / Barbary Ellen
Phil Tanner sang Barbara Allen on a BBC recording made on 22 April 1949 at Penmaen, Wales. It was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968), in 1968 on his eponymous EFDSS album, Phil Tanner, and in 2003 on his Veteran anthology CD The Gower Nightingale. Roy Palmer noted in the album's booklet:
The diarist Samuel Pepys, heard “this little Scotch (by which he meant northern) song” with great pleasure in 1666, and a century later the poet Oliver Goldsmith claimed that “the music of the finest singer is dissonance compared to when an old dairymaid sung me into tears with Johnny Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, or The Cruelty of Barbara Allen. Two centuries on again, the American scholar, B.H. Bronson wrote: “This little song of a spineless lover who gives up the ghost without a struggle, and his spirited beloved who repents too late, has paradoxically shown a stronger will to live than perhaps any other ballad in the canon. It is still universally known.” Tanner’s version is among scores of others but it is none the less welcome.
Elizabeth Cronin was recorded singing Barbara Allen in Ballyvourney, County Cork, in the early 1950s. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Series Volume 23). Steve Roud commented:
“This little song of a spineless lover who gives up the ghost without a struggle and of his spirited beloved who repents too late, has paradoxically shown a stronger will-to-live than perhaps any other ballad in the canon.” This is how Bertrand Bronson introduces Barbara Allen, which is easily the most widely known of the Child ballads. Hundreds of versions have been collected across Britain and North America since systematic song-fieldwork began in the late 19th century, and dozens of broadside printings are known. Although Child himself only devoted three meagre pages to the ballad, Bronson musters an impressive 198 versions with tunes. It is not easy to account for this popularity, although the fact that it was incorporated into ‘national’ and school songbooks and poetry anthologies must have helped to keep it in the public eye.
Bess Cronin's version of the story is stripped down to its bare essentials, and one extremely important element is omitted: Barbara's dying soon afterwards. In some versions, Barbara's ‘cruel’ behaviour is simply the result of feminine pique. The young men were in the tavern drinking healths to the girls, but they left her our, and therefore slighted her. But in very many versions, even this slender motive is absent, and Barbara's spite is unexplained. Ballad enthusiasts abhor a vacuum, so various ingenious, but groundless, claims have been made which brand Barbara as, for example, a witch who has cast a spell on her lover, or even that she was a prostitute, on the strength of the regular opening line “In Scarlet Town where I was born”. The fact that the latter probably refers to the well-documented nickname for Reading, which is where many versions are set, counts for nothing in this attempt to make Barbara a ‘scarlet woman’.
The earliest known texts date from the mid-18th century, but we know that the song was much older than that, as Samuel Pepys, who was an enthusiastic amateur musician, recorded hearing it as a social gathering on the 2nd January 1666. His diary reads: “but above all my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang; and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.” Elizabeth Knepp (Knipp) was an actress, singer, and dancer in the King's Company. She features regularly in Pepys' diary, and he nicknamed her ‘Bab Allen’.
Jessie Murray sang Barbara Allen at the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh; a CD with recordings from this event was published by Rounder Records in 2005.
The Shropshire farm worker Fred Jordan sang Barbara Allen on 30 October 1952 to Peter Kennedy. This recording was included in 2003 on his Veteran anthology A Shropshire Lad. A recording made by Tony Foxworthy in 1974 was published in the same year on his Topic album When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin.
Charlie Wills of Bridport, Dorset, sang Barbara Allen in 1952 to Peter Kennedy and in 1971 to Bill Leader. The former recording was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968), and the latter in 1972 on his eponymous Leader album, Charlie Wills.
Charlie Scamp sang Barbary Allen to Peter Kennedy and Maud Karpeles at Chartham Hatch, near Canterbury, Kent, on 15 January 1954. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Volume 22).
Ewan MacColl sang Bawbee Allen on his and A.L. Lloyd's 1956 Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume II. He also sang Barbara Allen in 1966 on his Topic album The Manchester Angel. He commented in the latter album's notes:
This is, by far, the most popular of the traditional ballads. It has been printed in chapbooks and broadsides and, on more than one occasion, has served as a stage song. The widespread oral circulation of the ballad has resulted in many minor variations of plot and, as Professor Bronson has observed, its tough-minded heroine has, with the passing of time, been transformed into a properly penitent young lady. The bequests mentioned in stanzas 4 and 5 were considered by Child to be interpolations not properly belonging to the ballad. The version given here was learned from Caroline Hughes in 1964.
Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk, sang Barbara Allen on 7 March 1958 to Philip Donnellann. This BBC recording was published in 1974 on his Topic album A Garland for Sam. Another recording made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1958-60 was included in 2014 on Larner's Musical Traditions anthology Cruising Round Yarmouth.
Barbara Allen is the “dark lady” of the ballads. She has been known to skip out of Jimmy's reach as he stretches a pale arm for her from his death bed; laugh out loud as she sees Jimmy's ghost in the lane on her way home. But after her devilish behaviour she always dies of remorse and finishes up in the churchyard with Jimmy. Of all the many versions I have heard, this one, with its sad two-part tune, haunts me most and best seems to evoke Barbara Allen herself.
Jim Wilson of West Hoathly, Sussex, sang Barbara Allen to Mervyn Plunkett in June 1959. This recording was included in 1961 on the Collector anthology Four Sussex Singers. Another recording made by Brian Matthews at The Plough, Three Bridges, on 10 February 1960 was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from country pubs, Just Another Saturday Night. The latter's booklet noted:
It's always nice to hear a good version of Barbara Allen—and this is a really good one, with a fairly full text, and the unusual ‘little hearts’ line. The tune skips about from 4/4 to 6/8 in a delightful way and Jim's occasional short lines are just glorious. A superb performance.
Robin Hall sang Bawbie Allen in 1960 on his Collector album of ballads from the Gavin Greig Collection, Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads.
Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus sang Barbara Allen in 1961 to Kenneth K. Goldstein. This recording was published in the same year on her Folkways album Traditional Singer from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Vol. 1—Child Ballads. Goldstein commented:
In his diary entry for 2 January 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote: “In perfect pleasure I was to her her (Mrs. Knipp, an actress) sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.” Many others have shared his “perfect pleasure” since Pepys' days, for Barbara Allen is certainly the best known and most widely sung of the Child ballads.
The consistency of the basic outline of the story and the amazing number of texts which have been reported on both sides of the ocean is no doubt due, in large part, to the numerous songster, chapbook and broadside printings of the ballad in the 19th century. A widespread oral circulation has, however, left its mark, for no ballad shows, in its different variants, so many minor variations.
The bedside gifts of the dying youth occurs frequently in Scottish texts of the ballad; Child however would not recognise this as legitimately belonging to the ballad, with the result that he omitted from his canon a version containing such bequests.
In most Scottish versions, the dying lover's name is John Graeme. Lucy's text omitting this point, together with the placing of the tale in London, suggests a possible combination in tradition of Scottish and English variants.
Jean Redpath sang Barbarry Allan in 1962 on her Folk-Legacy album Scottish Ballad Book. She noted:
None of the Child ballads is better known, more widely sung, nor has, in consequence, more minor variations than Barbara Allan. First reported by Samuel Pepys in his Diary for 2 January 1666 (“In perfect pleasure was I to hear her“Mrs Knipp, an actress—sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbara Allan”), this ballad is very popular in Scots, English and American traditions, the story remaining remarkably consistent in nearly all versions. Such consistency in texts is probably due to the many broadside printings of the song in the 19th century. The death-bed gifts are found frequently in Scottish versions, but F.J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads refused to recognise this as a legitimate part of the ballad and omitted one version containing them. The text and tune for the song as sung here are those collected from Mrs Jean Turriff of Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire by Arthur Argo. This exquisite melody is thought to be the only uniquely Scottish one so far found, those more commonly sung being English in origin.
Caroline Hughes sang Barbry Allen in a recording made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1964 that was included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Sheep-Crook and Black Dog, and John Hughes sang it to Peter Kennedy in Caroline Hughes' caravan near Blandford, Dorset, on 19 April 1968. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Volume 22). Rod Stradling commented in the former anthology's booklet:
This is the most widely-known ballad I’ve yet encountered in Steve Roud’s Song Index, with an astonishing 1191 instances (including 311 sound recordings) listed there. Needless to say, it’s found everywhere English is spoken—though Australia boasts only one version in the Index—and, very unusually, there’s even one from Wales … although it comes from Phil Tanner in that ‘little England’, the Gower Peninsula. The USA has 600 entries! It doesn’t appear to be quite so well-known in Ireland, with only 35 Index instances, or Scotland with 61.
The story comes in two general types: in one, Barbara upbraids Johnny for slighting her, and leaves him to die; in the other, she laughs at his corpse and is condemned as ‘cruel-hearted’ by their friends standing by. In both cases ‘It was he that died for love, and she that died of sorrow’. The ‘gold watch’ and ‘bowl of tears/blood’ verses which make up much of Mrs Hughes’ version can be found in either type. Her ‘I picked her out for to be my bride’ line in the first verse is very unusual; I’ve only heard it in the Jim Wilson (MTCD309-0) version, noted below. The ballad frequently ends with the rose and briar tied in a true-lovers’ knot motif, seemingly floated in from the Lord Lovell ballads.
Joe Heaney sang Barbary Ellen to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1964 too. This recording was included in 2000 on his Topic anthology The Road from Connemara.
Scan Tester sang Barbara Allen at The Fox in Islington, London, on 21 January 1965. This recording made by Reg Hall was published in 1990 on Tester's Topic album I Never Played to Many Posh Dances.
Hedy West sang Barbara Allen on her album Old Times & Hard Times (Topic 1965; Folk-Legacy 1967). This recording was also included in 2011 on her Fellside anthology Ballads & Songs from the Appalachians. The original album's liner notes commented:
This favourite ballad, with its story that seems singularly passive when one considers what blood-bolstered narratives most folk ballads are, is enormously widespread in the upland South of the United States, and in one state alone—Virginia—ninety-two different versions were collected. It probably owes its impressive survival to the fact that it was so often reprinted during the nineteenth century on broadsides and in cheap songbooks. Hedy West says: “I have rarely collected folk songs from any singer who didn’t know some variant of this ballad. The basic text is from Uncle Gus Mulkey. I’ve made textual and melodic additions from other sources.”
Danny Brazil sang Barbary Allen at his trailer at Over Bridge caravan site to Peter Shepheard on 6 January 1966, and Debbie and Pennie Davies sang it to Mike Yates near the Northfields housing estate, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. Both recordings were included in 2007 on the Brazil family's Musical Tradition anthology Down By the Old Riverside. The latter was previously included in 1979 on the Topic anthology of songs, stories and tunes from English gypsies, Travellers.
Sarah Makem sang Barbara Allen to Bill Leader in her home in Keady, Co. Armagh in 1967. This recording was published a year later on the Topic album Ulster Ballad Singer and in 1998 on the Topic anthology It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day (The Voice of the People Series Volumes 17). Another, much earlier, recording made by Diane Hamilton in 1955 was published in 2012 on Sarah Makem's Topic CD The Heart is True (The Voice of the People Series Volumes 24). Sean O'Boyle commented in her first album's sleeve notes:
Everyone knows the tragic story of young Jemmy Grove and Hard-Hearted Barbara Allen. One look through the list of texts and tunes given in Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians will show its widespread popularity. It is recorded in Shropshire Folklore (p 543), Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames (p 204), Folk Songs from Somerset (No. 22) and in Gavin Greig's Last Leaves (No. 32), in Mackenzie's Ballads and Sea Songs of Nova Scotia (No. 9), in British Ballads from Maine, in Traditional Ballads of Virginia, and in Folksongs of the Kentucky Mountains, and elsewhere. In all, more than 200 variants of the ballad are known from printed sources and recordings. This version from Keady, Co. Armagh is as good as any I have heard, and it differs from all of them in one remarkable respect. Most versions place the tragedy
“in the merry month of may
when the green buds they were swelling”,
but Sarah's song has a more sombre and appropriate timing:
Michael's Mass (Michaelmas) day being in the year
When the green leaves they were falling,
When young Jemmy Grove from the North Countrie
Fell in love with Barbara Allen.
George Belton of Madehurst, Arundel, Sussex, sang Barbara Allen on 29 January 1967 to Sean Davies and Tony Wales. This recording was published in the same year on his EFDSS album All Jolly Fellows ….
Cecilia Costello sang Barbara Allen in 1967 to Charles Parker and Pam Bishop. This recording was included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Old Fashioned Songs.
Packie Manus Byrne sang Barbara Ellen in 1969 on his eponymous EFDSS album Packie Byrne.
Bob Hart of Snape, Suffolk, sang Barbara Allen on 8 July 1969 to Rod and Danny Stradling, and in September 1973 to Tony Engle. The former recording was included in 1998 on his Musical Traditions anthology A Broadside, and the latter in 1974 on the Topic anthology Flash Company.
Charlie Somers of Bellarea, Londonderry, sang Barbro Allen on 18 July 1969 to Hugh Shields. This recording was included in 1975 on the Leader anthology Folk Ballads from Donegal and Derry.
Andy Cash of Co. Wexford sang Barbara Ellen in a recording made in Summer 1973 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs of Irish Travellers in England collected by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie, From Puck to Appleby. They noted in the booklet:
Probably the most widespread of all the ballads throughout the English speaking world, Barbara Allen first appeared in print in Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany in the 18th century and has continued to make an appearance in folk song collections ever since. In William Stenhouse’s notes to the variant in The Scots Musical Museum, he wrote:
It has been a favourite ballad at every country fire-side in Scotland, time out of memory… A learned correspondent informs me that he remembers having heard the ballad frequently sung in Dumfriesshire, where, it was said, the catastrophe took place.
The enduring popularity of the ballad among country singers and a revealing insight into how it was viewed by them, was amply illustrated in an interview with American traditional singer, Jean Ritchie, who spoke about her work collecting folk songs in Ireland, Scotland and England in the early nineteen fifties. She said:
I used the song Barbara Allen as a collecting tool because everybody knew it. When I would ask people to sing me some of their old songs they would sometimes sing Does Your Mother Come from Ireland, or something about shamrocks. But if I asked if they knew Barbara Allen, immediately they knew exactly what kind of song I was talking about and they would bring out beautiful old things that matched mine and were variants of the songs that I knew in Kentucky. It was like coming home.
Andy learned this version of the ballad from an old girlfriend. He sang another version, in country and western style, complete with American accent, but he insisted that the above was “the old way of singing it”.
John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang Barbara Allen in 1974 on their album Mellow With Ale from the Horn. They noted:
Our version of Barbara Allen, that most venerable and best-loved of ballads, was also found fairly recently (1964) by Ewan MacColl. He, with his wife Peggy Seeger, collected it from an English gypsy, Caroline Hughes, in Dorset.
George Roberts from Devon sang Barbara Allen to Sam Richards, Tish Stubbs and Paul Wilson in between 1974 and 1976. This recording was included in 1979 on the Topic anthology Devon Tradition.
Jane Turriff sang Barbara Allen in about 1975 to Allie Munro and Tom Atkinson. This recording was included in 1996 on her Springthyme album Singin Is Ma Life.
Phoebe Smith sang Barbara Allen in a recording by Mike Yates on the 1975 anthology of gypsies, travellers and country singers, Songs of the Open Road. Jon Boden credits Phoebe Smith as his source in his 5 July 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.
Johnny Doughty of Brighton, Sussex, sang Barbara Allen to Mike Yates in Summer 1976. This recording was published a year later on his Topic album Round Rye Bay for More. The liner notes commented:
The popularity of Barbara Allen, at least in the version that Johnny sings, is possibly due to its inclusion in Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time of 1859. The ballad was first mentioned in Pepys’s diary when, on 2 January 1666, he wrote that the actress Mary Knipp sang “her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen”.
One theory, rather unsubstantiated, is that Barbara Allen was, in fact, Barbara Villiers, a mistress of Charles II, whilst the poet Robert Graves has suggested that Barbara was a witch destroyed by her own evil spells.
Frank Hinchliffe from Sheffield sang Barbara Allen in 1976 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in between 1987-95 on the Veteran cassette The Horkey Load Vol 2 and in 2006 on the Veteran CD compilation It Was on a Market Day—Two.
Gordeanna McCulloch sang Bawbie Allan on her 1978 Topic album Sheath and Knife.
Roy Harris sang Barbry Allen in 1979 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth.
Patsy Flynn of Magheravely, Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, sang Barbara Allen on 4 August 1980 to Keith Summers and Jenny Hicks. This recording was included in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from around Lough Erne's shore in the Keith Summers Collection, The Hardy Sons of Dan.
Bill Smith of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, sang Barbara Allen in a recording made by his son Andrew Smith on 10 July 1982. It was included in 2011 on his Musical Traditions anthology of songs and stories of a Shropshire man, A Country Life. Rod Stradling noted in the album's booklet:
Bill's family were proud of the fact that songs had been collected from his grandfather by ‘A big mon from London’. When Veronica asked Bill's mother what songs his grandfather had sung, she replied “Barbaree Aling”. “Oh, do you mean Barbara Allen?” “No, Barbaree Aling!” As this is quite a conventional—albeit very short—version, it is quite possible that Bill learned it at school.
Suzie Adams and Helen Watson sang Barbarie Ellen in 1983 on their album Songbird.
Emma Briggs of Thwaite, Suffolk, sang Barbara Allen in 1983 to John Howson. He included this recording his Veteran 1993 cassette and 2009 CD Many a Good Horseman. John Howson noted:
This is a truncated version of a very widespread ballad. […] Emma Briggs learned it from her mother, who may have learned it when she worked in service. When Emma was young she hated her mother singing it because she felt it was so depressing.
Vic Legg sang Barbara Allen on the 1994 Veteran cassette / 2000 Veteran CD of Cornish songs from the Orchard/Legg family, I've Come to Sing a Song. This track was also included in 2007 on the CD accompanying The Folk Handbook. Lucy Wainwright Roche sang Barbara Allen on a CD of modern recordings of traditional songs to accompany this handbook, titled Old Wine New Skins.
Incantation sang Barbara Allen in 1994 on their Cooking Vinyl CD Sergeant Early's Dream.
Dolly Parton sang Barbara Allen on her 1994 live CD Heartsongs: Live from Home. This track is one of Iona Fyfe's “desert island choices” in Living Tradition 127 (2019).
Wiggy Smith sang Barbara Allen on 9 October 1994 at the Victoria pub, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, to Gwilym Davies. This recording was included in 2000 on the Musical Tradition anthology of songs from the Smith family, Band of Gold.
Frankie Armstrong sang Barbara Allen in 2000 on her Fellside CD The Garden of Love.
Sangsters sang Barbara Allen on their 2000 Greentrax CD Sharp and Sweet.
Norma Waterson sang Barbary Allen in 2000 on her third solo album, Bright Shiny Morning. She noted:
I don't know where the tune materialised from so I think I must have made it up. I know I sang it as a child, though whether it's from school or the family I don't know. The song is extremely old and was said to be the favourite of Charles the Second's mistress, Nell Gwynn.
Martin Carthy sang a very similar version called Barbara Allen on the “English” CD of Fellside's 2003 celebration of English traditional songs and their Australian variants, Song Links. Edgar Waters commented in the liner notes:
Barbara Allen is #84 in Professor Francis J. Child's monumental collection of ballads (The English & Scottish Popular Ballads) and probably originated in the seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys referred to it as a “little Scotch” song in 1666. Whether it is Scottish or English in origin is anybody's guess. There are many, many English and Scottish versions. It was known in English-speaking parts of Ireland by the eighteenth century, where Oliver Goldsmith heard it sung by the family dairymaid, and it remains widely sung there, and in North America. Martin Carthy learnt his version from the singing of an English worker, Jim Wilson, recorded in a Sussex country pub in 1960. The location varies from version to version but Reading is also given in the fine version collected by Ewan MacColl from the Dorset gypsy singer, Queen Caroline Hughes in 1964.
Martin Carthy sang a somewhat different version as Barbary Ellen in 1998 on his album Signs of Life. He noted:
I think that I've known Barbary Ellen all my life. The song I learned was very short and gave you nothing of her anger at being treated with such disdain and how that translates to the contempt with which she treats his rather late declarations of lurve… The tune is from the Shropshire gypsy, Samson Price.
The “Australian” CD of Song Links again has a very similar version to Carthy's sung by Cathie O'Sullivan, having the same title and both ending with the rose and briar motif.
Nic Jones sang Barbara Ellen on his 2001 CD anthology Unearthed, which is a collection of concert, club and studio performances recorded prior to 1982.
Louis Killen sang Barbara Allen in 2001 as a bonus track of the CD re-issue of The Rose in June.
June Tabor sang Barbry Ellen in 2001 on her Topic CD Rosa Mundi.
Nancy Kerr and James Fagan recorded Barbara Allen in August 2005 for their Fellside CD Strands of Gold. This video shows them at Sheffield Folk Festival in 2007:
Tom and Barbara Brown sang Barbara Allen in 2005 on their WildGoose CD Tide of Change. They noted:
[…] This text, one of the fullest and certainly one that gives a whole perspective to the story that is often missing in other sets, comes from the extraordinary ballad singer Cyril Piggott. The tune used here was collected by Cecil Sharp from Jane Wheller of Langport in 1904.
The Devil's Interval sang Barbara Allen in ca. 2005 on their EP Demon Lovers, naming Queen Caroline Hughes as their source.
Sara Grey sang Barbara Allen in 2005 on her Fellside CD A Long Way from Home. She noted:
Whether originally a “stage” song as Samuel Pepys’ diary indicates in 1666 or not, Barbara Allen has become the most widely sung ballads in the Child collection. I learned this version from Jerry Epstein, who, in turn, learned it from a New York Jewish Cantor (would you believe), Eli Mallon. He claims to have learned it from a collection of South Carolina folksongs.
Steve Tilston sang Barbry Allen in 2005 on his CD Of Many Hands.
Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton sang Barbara Allen on their 2007 album Summer's Lonesome Tale.
Paul and Liz Davenport sang Barbary Ellen in 2008 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Songbooks.
Alasdair Roberts sang Barbara Allen in 2010 on his CD Too Long in This Condition.
Martin Simpson sang Barbry Allen in 2011 on his Topic CD Purpose+Grace. He noted:
When I was about 8 years old, Miss Cook, the music teacher at Brumby Junior School taught my class a version of Barbara Allen and I still remember vividly how much I was moved by the song. I even asked if I could take home my copy of the lyrics on purple ink roneoed paper, which I can still smell.
Tom Spiers sang Barbara Allen in 2012 on Shepheard, Spiers & Watson's Springthyme album Over the High Hills. Peter Shepheard noted:
Learnt by Tom from a recording made by Peter Hall in the early 1960s of John Stewart, a settled traveller in Aberdeen.
Tom Spiers: Since early childhood I’d often heard this ballad sung, but was never motivated to learn it until I heard a recording made by Peter Hall in the early 1960s, of John Stewart, a settled traveller in Aberdeen. I loved the tune and the feeling he put into it. Over the years I’ve changed a few lines and added a couple of verses, but don’t ask me which ones.
Barbara Allen is one of the most popular traditional ballads both in print and collected from the living tradition. Bronson published 198 tunes and texts for the ballad, but I think he missed this one.
Steve Roud included Barbara Allen in 2012 in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. James Findlay sang it a year later on the accompanying Fellside CD The Liberty to Choose: A Selection of Songs from The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
Brian Peters and Jeff Davis sang Barbara Allen on their 2013 album Sharp's Appalachian Harvest, a selection of traditional songs and music from the collection made by Cecil Sharp in the Appalachian Mountains between 1916 and 1918.
Andy Turner sang Barbara Allen as the 1 June 2013 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week. His version is from Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring and was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923, from William Pittaway of Burford in Oxfordshire.
Lucy Farrell and the Furrow Collective used to sing Elizabeth Cronin's version of Barbara Allen at their concerts; I saw them doing it in January 2015 in Esslingen, Germany. They recorded the ballad with Emily Portman singing lead in 2016 for their second album, Wild Hog. They noted:
Our version of Barbara Allen, that most popular English language ballad of them all, comes from Elizabeth Cronin, who was recorded in County Cork in the early 1950s. The first reference to the song was made by Samuel Pepys in a 1666 diary entry and it has since been widely collected throughout Britain and America. Cronin's rendition brought the song to life for Emily when she came across it on the Good People, Take Warning CD on Topic Records. The last two verses are taken from those of a version collected by Cecil Sharp from Jim and Francis Gray on 7 April 1906 in Enmore, which is number 16 in Bronson's collection The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.
In many versions the ballad concludes with Barbara Allen dying of a broken heart, but this version, like Cronin's, leaves Barbara's fate open as she walks away from her (ex) love's death bed through the fields and lanes, with the birds and the church bells voicing her conscience and singing “hard-hearted Barbara Allen”
Lisa Knapp sang Barbary Ellen, on her 2018 EP The Summer Draws Near (A Branch of May Chapter Two). She noted:
Also known as Barbara Allen, this is one of, if not the, most commonly collected of British Folk ballads with apparently hundreds of versions found in America. This particular version is set ‘when the green buds they were swelling’ which is why I have it here in my May collection. With such high drama, dark emotion, stark sorrow and ending in the death of both protagonists this song has long been a perennial favourite amongst singers and I guess is also why it has prevailed so profusely.
Annie Winter sang Barbara Allen on Amsher's 2018 album of Hampshire songs collected by Lucy Broadwood in Oxfordshire, Patience Vaisey at Adwell 1892. Bob Askew noted:
This ballad has been the most popular folk song from the 17th century up to today. Barbara Allen refuses the advances of a lover, who then dies. She, then repenting, dies soon after for love.
Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang Barbara Allen on Stick in the Wheel's 2019 anthology From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2. Mary noted:
You won't have heard this version, it comes from Cottenham. It was written down by Ella Bull [VWML LEB/5/69] who had been blind from birth. Her father Arthur was very much into Braille, developing it because he had another two daughters who were blind or partially sighted. He got to know Percy Merrick who was part of the folk song society people, who came up to Cottenham at some point and obviously enthused Ella Bull to write down all the folk songs she knew because she'd heard the family servants singing them. This is around 1875. One of the family servants, Charlotte Dann, nee Few, carried on living in Cottenham just a few doors down the street. Ella Bull visited her, saying can I have some more of your songs please? She wrote it down and sent to Lucy Broadwood along with the tune, and it’s been sitting around in Cecil Sharp House. It was Malcolm Douglas who was so generous with his knowledge, who told me, I'll tell you where to look for it, go and find it. He set me off on my little trail. I can't thank him enough. I thought, that's a good version, why don't I sing that? Cottenham was five miles away from where we lived and we used to run a tunes session there—it was so good to actually play tunes in the place where a lot of the stuff came from. I got to know some of Charlotte Dane's relatives through my research, and I met her great grandson, who gave me a family book written by Charlotte's daughter Annie, with all sorts of things in there, recipes, but also folk song lyrics, and photo of her, fabulous. I love the song, we sing it quite a bit.
Alex Cumming sang Barbara Allen on his 2020 download album Isolation Sessions: The Songs. He noted:
I first learnt this song from the Daily Express Community Song Book, first published in 1927. After reading the text of this ballad, I assumed the song would be a minor key and therefore read the sheet music wrong and thus came into creation this rather spooky melody.
Findlay Napier and Gillian Frame sang Barbara Allen on their 2020 album of songs from Norman Buchan's 1950s and 1960s The Scotsman articles, The Ledger.
Phil Tanner sings Barbara Allen
In Scarlet Town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwelling,
Made every youth say, “Well-a-day”,
Her name was Barbara Allen.
All in the blooming month of May,
When green buds they were swelling,
Young Jimmy Grove on his death bed lay,
For love of Barbara Allen.
He sent his man down through the town,
To the place where she was dwelling.
“You must come to my master dear,
If you be Barbara Allen.”
So slowly, slowly she came up,
So slowly she came nigh him,
And all she said when there she came,
“Young man I think you're dying.”
“A dying man, no, no,” said he,
“One kiss from thee would cure me.”
“One kiss from me thou never shalt have,
If your poor heart was breaking.”
He turned his face against the wall,
As pangs of death he fell in,
“Adieu, adieu, adieu to all,
Adieu to Barbara Allen.”
When he was dead and laid in his grave,
Her heart was struck with sorrow,
“Oh mother, mother make my bed,
I shall die tomorrow.”
She on her death bed as she lay,
Begged to be buried by him,
And so repented of that day,
That she did e'er deny him.
“Farewell”, she cried, “You virgins all,
And shun the fault I fell in.
Hence forth take warning by the fate,
Of cruel Barbara Allen.”
|Elizabeth Cronin sings Barbara Allen||Shirley Collins' Barbara Allen|
on The Power of the True Love Knot
It was early, early in the summertime,
It was round and about last Martinmas tide
He fell sick, and very, very bad,
He sent his man into the town
Very slowly she got up
Then slowly, slowly got she up
“Dying, dying, not at all,” he said,
“Indeed, I'm sick and very sick
“But don't you remember last Saturday night
And Death is printed on his face
As she was a-going over the fields
“Oh mother, mother, make my bed,
|Norma Waterson's Barbary Allen
on Bright Shiny Morning
|Martin Carthy's Barbara Allen|
on Song Links
In Reading town, where I was born,
Now in the first part of the year
It was all in the month of May,
He sent his men all down to her hall
“For death is painted upon his face
“Though death is painted upon his face
And he sent his servant man
So slowly, slowly she's got up
So slowly, slowly she walked up,
“If on your death bed you do lie
“Oh look at my bedhead,” he cried,
“Oh look at my bed foot,” he cried,
“Oh nothing would help what's in your fate,
And as she walked all across the field
As she was walking through the field
And then she's turned herself around,
And she was walking through the street
When he's dead and laid in his grave
The more she looked, the more she laughed,
“Hard-hearted was I him to slight
“Hard-hearted creature sure I was
And she upon her death bed lay,
It was he that died was today,
|Martin Carthy's Barbary Ellen
on Signs of Life
|Cathy O'Sullivan's Barbary Ellen|
on Song Links
All in the third part of the year
In Dublin I was reared and born,
He sent his men down to the town
He sent his servant to her room,
So slowly, slowly she rose up,
“You're lying low, young man,” she cries,
“Oh look at my bedhead,” he cries,
“Oh look at my bed foot,” he cries,
'Twas slowly, slowly she put on her clothes
“Tell me, do you mind the time, ” she cries,
“Don't you remember last Saturday night
“Oh it's well I remember last Saturday night
She walked over yon garden field,
She walked over yon garden field,
She lifted the lid from off the corpse,
She come home to her father's house,
“Oh mother, mother, make my bed,
“Oh father, father, dig my grave,
They buried her all in the churchyard,
A rose grew from fair William's heart,
They grew and they grew all in the churchyard
They grew and grew to the top of the church
Findlay Napier and Gillian Frame sang Barbara Allen
It fell about the Martinmas time
when the green leaves were doon fallin,
That Sir John the Grahame from the West Countrie
Fell in love wi Barbara Allan.
He sent his men down through the town
To the place where she was dwellin,
“O haste and come to ma maister dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allan.”
O hooly, hooly she rose up,
till she cam where he was lyin,
An’ when she drew the curtains roun,
Said, “Young man I think ye’re dyin.”
“I am sick and very very sick
an’ it’s a’ for Barbara Allan.”
“But the better for me ye ne’er shall be,
though your heart’s blood were a-spillin.”
“Don’t you mind young man,” she said,
“When in the tavern calling,
Ye made the toast gang roun and roun
but ye slighted Barbara Allan”
“A kiss o you would do me good,
my bonnie Barbara Allan.”
“But a kiss o me ye canna get,
Though your heart’s blood were a-spillin.”
He’s turned his face untae the wa’
For death was wi him dealin
Said, ”Fare ye weel my kind friends a’
But be kind to Barbara Allan.
“Put in your han at my bedside
An there you’ll find a warran
Wi my gold watch an my prayer book,
Gie that to Barbara Allan.
“Put in your hand at my bedside
An there you’ll find a warran
An’ a napkin fu’l o’ my hairt’s blood,
Gie that to Barbara Allan.”
Slowly, slowly rose she up
An’ slowly slowly left him,
An’ sighing said, she couldna stay,
Since the death o life had reft him.
She hadna gane a mile but ane
When she heard dead bell knellin,
An ilka toll that the dead bell gae
Said woe to Barbara Allan.
Then in came her faither dear,
Said, “Bonnie Barbara tak him.”
“It’s time to bid me tak him noo,
When you know his coffin’s makin.”
In then cam her brother dear,
Said, “Tak him Barbara tak him.”
“It’s time to bid me tak him noo,
Now his grave-claes is a-makin.”
Then in cam her sister dear,
Said, “Bonnie Barbara tak him.”
“It’s time to bid me tak him noo,
When my hairt it is a-breakin.”
“O Mother dear mak ma bed
an mak it lang an narrow.
My love has died for me the-day,
I’ll die for him the-morrow.”
Acknowledgements and Links
See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Barbara Allen.