Remembering the Old Songs:

Barbara Allen

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March 1996)

Pop Quiz: What is the only song to have been recorded by the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Art Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Burl Ives, The King's Singers, Jean Redpath, Mac Wiseman, Vernon Dalhart, and The New Lost City Ramblers?

I'll give you a hint. What is the most popular secular song in the history of the English language?

No, it's not White Christmas, or whatever it was you were thinking of. It is widely (although not universally) believed that the song most widely sung by English-speaking people is the old British Isles ballad Barbara Allen (Child #84).

We really don't know how widespread this ballad is. The first clear reference to it is from 1666, when Samuel Pepys mentions having heard it. The earliest printed version known to me (Child's "A" text) dates from 1740. Since that time, literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of variants have been recorded. Ed Cray, of USC, reports having studied over six hundred variants. Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads gives nearly two hundred tunes for the song.

What is perhaps most amazing about the song is that, even though there are hundreds of variations, all are remarkably similar. The girl's name is always Barbara/Barbary/Barbra Allen/Ellen. Even the young man has only a few names ("Sweet William," "Sir John Graham," some Ozark versions have "Young Belfry"). The story, too, is always the same: Sweet William is dying for love of Barbara Allen. He sends his servant to bring her; she comes, but shows no interest in his plight. (Some versions offer an explanation:

Do you remember in yonder town
You were in the tavern drinkin'
You drank a toast to the ladies all
But slighted Barbara Allen

She leaves, he dies and is buried; she hears the death-bell, repents, and dies in turn. Typically the lovers are buried in neighboring graves, and the rest you can tell from the text given here.

Ed Cray suspects that the original was Scottish (the fullest texts are Scottish; in some of them Sweet William leaves Barbara a dying gift, a feature not found in other versions). There are four basic variations of the text, known by their first lines: "All in the Merry Month of May"; "It fell about a Martinmas time" (possibly the oldest form), "So early, early in the Spring," and "In Scarlet Town where I was born." About half of the known texts, including the version I print here, are of the first type.

Four basic melodies have been found. They occur in 3/4 time, in 2/4 time, and in mixed times (5/4 or 2/4+3/4). Somewhat surprisingly, related texts and related tunes do not go together; they seem to be mixed together almost randomly.The tune I've given here is American; it's not the one I know best, but seems to be fairly typical.

Although mostly sung by ballad singers, this song has a firm place in bluegrass, having been recorded by Mac Wiseman, The Hillmen, Glen Neaves, and probably others that I don't know.

Thanks to Ed Cray and Jack Marshall Bevil for their help researching this piece.

Barbara Allen

Complete Lyrics:

All in the merry month of May
When flowers were a-bloomin',
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbra Allen.

He sent his servant to the town,
To the place where she was dwellin',
Saying, "Master dear has sent me here
If your name be Barbra Allen."

Then slowly slowly she got up,
And slowly went she nigh him,
And all she said when she got there,
"Young man, I think you're dyin'."

He turned his face unto the wall
And death was with him dealin',
"Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all;
Be kind to Barbra Allen."

She looked to the east, she looked to the west,
She saw his corpse a-comin';
"O set him down for me," she cried,
"That I might gaze upon him."

"O mother, go, and make my bed;
O make it long and narrow;
Sweet William died for me this day,
And I shall die tomorrow."

They buried Willie in the old church yard;
They buried Barbra by him.
From his grave grew a red red rose,
And out of hers a briar.

They grew and grew in the old church yard
Till they could grow no higher.
And there they formed a true love knot,
The red rose and the briar.

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