The Ballad of Barbara Allen by Wayne Erbsen

No other old English or Scottish ballad even comes close to the popularity of “Barbara Allen.” Brought over to America by the earliest pioneers, its roots can be traced to at least the year 1666 when Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on January 2, “In perfect pleasure I was to hear her [Mrs. Knipp, an actress] sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.” Even Abraham Lincoln sang “Barbara Allen” while growing up in rural Indiana.

In America, “Barbara Allen” was sometimes called “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty or the Young Man s Tragedy.” It was also known as “Barbara Ellen,” and “Bonny Barbara Allan.” In the beginning of the 19th century “Barbara Allen” was used both as a children’s game and as an instrumental at dance parties. In the mid eighteenth century the tune of “Barbara Allen” was also used for several religious texts. During the Civil War, it provided the melody of a song called “Brother Green,” which told the last words of a dying soldier.

By the end of the 19th century, ballads such as “Barbara Allen” were all but forgotten in the British Isles where they originated. Just when these ballads were on the edge of oblivion, in walked an English folksong collector named Cecil Sharp. As early as 1910, Sharp combed America’s southern states from Georgia and North Carolina to Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. There he found a wealth of English ballads that had long been forgotten in his native land. He collected enough versions of “Barbara Allen” to fill sixteen pages of his book English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians.

When we think back to the roots of bluegrass music, it’s important to remember that ballads like “Barbara Allen” were the bedrock that bluegrass music was built on. For certain, the ancestors of the first generation of bluegrass singers like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Don Reno and Mac Wiseman were so familiar with ballads like “Barbara Allen” that they could sing all the verses from memory.

Even today, Barbara Allen has maintained its status as America’s best- known ballad. In recent years, it has been recorded more than three hundred times. A short list of but a few of the artists who have recorded “Barbara Allen” might surprise you: Eddie Arnold, Joan Baez, Mac Wiseman, Hylo Brown, Doris Day, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Dave Dudley, The Everly Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Art Garfunkel, Crystal Gayle, Tex Ridder and Dolly Parton.

Barbara Allen

‘Twas in the merry month of May

When all gay flowers were blooming

Sweet William on his deathbed lay

For the love of Barbara Allen.

He sent his servant to the town

He sent him to her dwelling

Saying; Master’s sick and very sick,

And for your sake he’s dying.

 

Slowly, slowly, she gets up

And to his bedside going

She drew the curtains to one side

And says: Young man, you’re dying.

 

He reached out his pale, white hands

Intending for to touch her

She jumped, she skipped all over the room

And says: Young man, I won’t have you.

 

He turned his pale face to the wall

And bursted out a-crying

Saying: Adieu to thee, adieu to all

Adieu to Barbara Allen.

 

She had not more than reached the town

She heard the death bells tolling

She looked to the east, she looked to the west

And saw his pale face coming.

 

Hand down, hand down that corpse of clay

And let me gaze upon him

The more she gazed, the more she grieved

And she bursted out a-crying.

 

Cursed, cursed, be my name

And cursed be my nature

For this man’s life I might have saved

If I had done my duty.

 

O mother, O mother, go make my bed

And make it long and narrow

Sweet William died for me today

And I’ll die for him tomorrow.

 

Sweet William died on Saturday night

Miss Barbara died on Sunday

The old lady died for the love of both

She died on Easter Monday.

 

Sweet William was carried to one churchyard

Miss Barbara to another

A briar grew out of one of their graves

A rose tree out of the other.

 

They grew as high as the old church top

They could not grow any higher

They bound and tied in a true love’s knot

For all true lovers to admire.

 

NOTE: Portions of this article are from Wayne Erbsen’s book, Log Cabin Pioneers, available from us at Native Ground Music.

 

 

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