Barbara Allen (song)

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"Barbara Allen"
Barbara Allen illustration by Henry Brock 1934.jpg
Written byTraditional
Published17th century (earliest known)
FormBroadside ballad and folksong
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"Barbara Allen"
Barbara Allen illustration by Henry Brock 1934.jpg
Written byTraditional
Published17th century (earliest known)
FormBroadside ballad and folksong

"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]


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]


"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 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.[11][12]

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.[13] Quilter later incorporated the setting in his Arnold Book of Old Songs, rededicated to his late nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, and published in 1950.[14]

Contemporary renditions[edit]

Versions of the song were recorded in the 1950s and 60s by The Everly Brothers, Jean Ritchie, Shirley Collins, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.

Johnny Cash re-wrote the song as "The Ballad of Barbara" and performed it live at Austin City Limits in 1987. Cash focused on a theme of divorce rather than death. The main character was born and raised in a southern town, and eventually moved his way up north to possibly New York or Washington D.C. After having a lot of girls and drinks, he discovers his true love where they get married under a "lofty steeple". However, when the main character offers to take her to see his folks down south, she refuses and decides to "take the city". The main character divorces her and moves back home "much wiser now and older".[citation needed]

Bob Dylan recorded a version of the song in his Live at the Gaslight 1962 album released in 1965.

Art Garfunkel recorded the song for his debut solo album Angel Clare which was released in 1973.[citation needed]

Jerry Reed recorded Barbara Allen for his 1969 album Explores Guitar Country. [15]

John Wesley Harding updated the song into a modern ballad about wandering and lost love as "The Red Rose and the Briar" on his album Here Comes the Groom.[citation needed]

English punk/folk singer Frank Turner also recorded the song Barbara Allen and included it on the compilation album 'The Second Three Years' as a live track in 2011 after originally recording it on the album 'Take To The Road - Live At Shepherds Bush Empire'.[citation needed]

Les Barker wrote the poem "Maybe Then I'll Be A Rose" as what he called a "sensible version" of the song, with the lovers seizing the day rather than waiting until death to embrace one another. It was set to music by Savourna Stevenson and recorded by June Tabor for her album Rosa Mundi; she frequently includes it in her live sets.[16]

Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones recorded a version of the song on their 2013 album Foreverly.

Meg Baird of Espers (band) recorded a version of the song for her 2007 solo album Dear Companion.

Influence on popular culture[edit]

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, and Jane Campion's Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano.[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[17] and premiered on BBC Radio 7 February 16, 2009.[18]


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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 (1995). Motif Index of the Child Corpus: The English and Scottish Popular Ballad. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 25, 57. ISBN 3-11-014290-2.  Unknown parameter |translator= ignored (|others= suggested) (help); Unknown parameter |Co-authors= ignored (help)
  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. ^ "The Ballad of Barbara Allen by Anonymous". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Bonny Barbara Allan, Traditional Ballads, English Poetry I: from Chaucer to Gray". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  13. ^ Valerie Langfield, Roger Quilter: His Life and Music, p.202
  14. ^ Music Web International
  15. ^ "Discogs". Retrieved December 21, 2013. }
  16. ^ "Mainly Norfolk". Retrieved March 28, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Barabara Allen by David Pownall". Radio Drama Retrieved June 11, 2013. 
  18. ^ "David Pownall - Barbara Allen broadcast history". BBC Online. Retrieved June 11, 2013. 

External links[edit]