Henry's Songbook

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  •  Melody

  • Barbara Allen

    Lyrics #1

    • Trad - Child 084

      'Twas in the merry month of May
      When green buds all were swelling
      Sweet William on his death-bed lay
      For the love of Barbara Allen

      He sent his servant to the town
      To the place where she was dwelling
      Saying, You must come to my master dear
      If your name be Barbara Allen

      So slowly slowly she got up
      And slowly she drew nigh him
      And the only words to him did say
      She said, Young man, I think you're dying

      He turned his face onto the wall
      And death was in him welling
      God bless, God bless to my friends all
      Be good to Barbara Allen

      When he was dead and laid in grave
      She heard the death-bells knelling
      And every stroke to her did say
      Cold-hearted Barbara Allen

      O mother o mother, go dig my grave
      Make it both long and narrow
      Sweet William died of love for me
      And I will die of sorrow

      O father o father, go dig my grave
      Dig it both long and narrow
      Sweet William died of love for me
      And I will die tomorrow

      Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
      Sweet William was buried beside her
      Out of Sweet William's heart grew a red red rose
      Out of Barbara Allen's a briar

      They grew and grew in the old churchyard
      Till they could grow no higher
      At the end they formed a true lovers' knot
      And the rose grew round the briar

      1, as sung by Joan Baez


      Barbara Allen

      In Scarlet Town where I was born
      There was a fair maid dwelling
      Made every youth cry 'Well-a-day'
      Her name was Barbara Allen

      'Twas in the merry month of May
      When the green buds they were swelling
      Sweet William on his death-bed lay
      For the love of Barbara Allen

      He sent his servant to the town
      To the place where she was dwelling
      Said, Master, he bid you to him
      If your name be Barbara Allen

      Then slowly slowly she got up
      And slowly when she nighed him
      And when she drew the curtain back
      Said, Young man, I think you're dying

      Oh yes I'm sick, I'm very very sick
      And I never can be better
      Until I have the love of one
      The love of Barbara Allen

      Then slowly slowly she got up
      And he trembled like an aspen
      'Tis vain 'tis vain, young man, Said she
      To fain for Barbara Allen

      She walked out in a green green field
      She heard his death bells knelling
      At every toll they seemed to say
      Cold-hearted Barbara Allen

      Her eyes looked east, her eyes looked west
      She saw his pale corpse coming
      Said, Bearers oh bearers, pray put him down
      So I may look upon him

      The more she looked the more she grieved
      Until she burst out crying
      O bearers, o bearers, pray take him away
      For I am now a-dying

      Oh father, oh father, go dig my grave
      Go dig it deep and narrow
      Sweet William he died for me today
      I'll die for him tomorrow

      They buried her in the old churchyard
      Sweet William's grave was nigh her
      And from his heart grew a red red rose
      And from her heart a briar

      They grew and they grew the old churchyard wall
      Till they couldn't grow no higher
      Until they tied a true lovers' knot
      The red rose and the briar

      2, as sung by The Spinners

    Susannes Folksong-Notizen

    • [1857:] In Percy's version of Barbara Allen, that ballad commences "In Scarlet town," which, in the [later] common stall copies, is rendered "In Redding town." The former is apparently a pun upon the old orthography - REDding. (Robert Bell, Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England)

    • [1859:] It has been suggested that for "Scarlet" town... we should read "Carlisle" town. Some of the later printed copies have "Reading" town. (Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time)

    • [1951:] An old English ballad sung to a traditional tune. (Penguin Song Book 106)

      [1956:] From the evidence, it frequently appears that the element of narrative suspense means next to nothing to these singers. There may in fact be something radically inimical to suspense in the lyrical conception of balladry itself. [...] Barbara Allan, which leads all the rest in popularity, seems at any rate never to have possessed this ingredient. Barbara's belated remorse may perhaps provide a modicum of surprise. But in almost none of the current variants does her lover put up so much resistance as to offer a word of explanation of the apparent affront with which she sometimes charges him. More often than not, her charge of neglect is also dropped, and her callousness left unexplained. To judge by the briefer variants, the elements with most power of survival in the song, after the seasonal setting in the opening, are the summons to the death-bed, Barbara's languid compliance with it, and the upspringing and intertwining of the symbolic plants from the graves. When, as sometimes happens, the connection between Barbara's death and her desire to atone for her cruelty fails to be made, obviously little remains of genuine narrative. [Its] popularity from the days of Pepys onward to the present, in the face of its undistinguished and unexciting content, its portrayal of unresisting surrender to untoward fortune, is, if we take the song as a fundamental expression of the spirit of the English-speaking people, a phenomenon so strange and mysterious as to deserve prolonged meditation. (Bronson, Ballad 162f)

      We may ask if there are any obvious features that might help to explain why these particular songs have clung to memory. In the first place, all are motivated by passionate love, though the emotion itself is not the focus of interest. [...] In the second place, these stories are very easily remembered [...]. But the ballads are songs, not merely spoken narratives; and it remains to inquire very briefly whether the tunes can throw any further light on the question at issue. (Bronson, Ballad 167ff)

    • [1961:] Probably it is the most widespread old world ballad in the U.S. - of course, everyone knows a different version and swears it is "the real one". (Seeger, Ballads 79 - close to T 33)

    • [1962:] "Scarlet Town", which is not to be found on any map, and which may even be an inspired corruption of a known locality, has stood firm in the popular imagination. Reading (town), for which it might once have been a punning substitute, has not been taken up, nor has London, though they both occur sporadically. [...] Two contrasting seasons for the central event have made strong claims to permanent acceptance: autumn and spring. Autumn [...] was the choice of the first surviving Scottish version, of the early eighteenth century. [...] the opposite choice has been greatly preferred, perhaps because it sharpens the pathos, the poignancy, of the death of young lovers. [...] Analysts suggest that the reason most suicides occur in fine weather [???] is because of the clash between that and the private unhappiness.

      The lover's name has never been felt to matter [...]. But Allan in some form has clung through thick and thin, being built into rhymes and echoed in the melodic cadences. Better rhyming has sometimes prompted "Ellen", and thereupon the first name may become an epithet, "barbarous". But that word is rather too literary, and Barbara has generally held her ground. The reproachful death bells have seldom been forgotten, even in regions where one may suppose bells to be rare [...]. To make a good ending, Barbara's remorse and death used, as the earlier texts indicate, to be judged sufficient. But not latterly: familiar formulas from other songs have suggested themselves, and the conclusion is drawn out at length. Barbara orders her mother to make her bed, her father to dig her grave; if Jimmy dies as it might be today, she dies as it might be tomorrow, of love in the one case, in the other of sorrow. They are buried in churchyard and choir, respectively, and the old favourite rose-and-briar ending, symbolic or, as some say, metempsychotic, is appended. Frequently, the metaphor fades, and the briar springs from Willie, the rose from Barbara. [...]

      A fact that seems to have escaped attention is the very interesting metamorphosis which has befallen Barbara herself in her lifetime. [...] The first known reference to the song's existence is in Pepys's diary, January 2, 1666 [...]. How much older the song may be we cannot surely say, but the frequent mention of old songs, like Greensleeves, in earlier literature makes the lack of a single casual Elizabethan allusion to Barbara an argument for a mid-seventeenth-century origin. Pepys calls it a Scottish song. [Allow it time for coming south from Scotland!]

      It has even been wildly conjectured that the song was a covert attack on Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine. We have no Scottish texts so early;; no recorded tune in Scotland for another century, in England for two centuries. But an English broadside text was printed in London in Pepys's own day, and its most salient features - with powerful assistance from Percy's 'Reliques', a work continually reprinted after 1765 - have been perpetuated in the traditional memory. Barbara Allan's Cruelty, it was called, and unexplained cruelty was her chief characteristic trait. It has been a main business of tradition to rationalize this quality and explain it away. In the broadside, when the young man's servant comes to summon her, [she is cold]. So stony a heart was too much for the popular sensibility, which went to work on motivation. In the earliest Scottish copy, printed about fifty years later, in Ramsay's 'Tea Table Miscellany', and also reprinted by Percy, she is not cold but bitterly resentful. [...] In the Scottish copy, he has no reply, but turns his face to the wall with a kind adieu. She leaves the deathbed with visible reluctance and a parting sigh, and goes home to announce her imminent death. Not so the early broadside. Walking "on a day", Barbara hears the death bell, turns round to see the funeral procession, orders the corpse to be set down, and takes a long look, all the while loudly laughing. Again the popular mind has recoiled, and in copy after American copy, we find verses like these:

      The more she looked, the more she grieved
      She busted out to crying
      I might have saved this young man's life
      And kept him from hard dying

      Sometimes self-reproach changes even to self-exculpation:

      Oh mother dear, you caused all this
      You would not let me have him

      Thus, little by little, and partly through mere abridgment and condensation, a kindlier, more sympathetic image has been wrought in tradition. If Barbara was once a "real person", as Phillips Barry believed that she must have been, she has certainly mellowed with age!

      Barbara Allan is unquestionably and by all odds the best known, most favourite traditional ballad among English-speaking peoples in the twentieth, and like enough the nineteenth, century. [...] By ordinary standards, one must acknowledge that the story has few of the elements that make a smash hit. The action is far from violent; there is little suspense in it, and a minimum of surprise. [...] There is no love triangle, no defiance of conventional morality, no struggle, no complication, no delay. [...]

      But [...] the idea of love as a destructive power has been a potent concept for almost as long as the Western civilization can be traced. By the ancients it was looked upon as a seizure, a calamity, a madness; and the lover's madness was a disease also well known to the Middle Ages. In all early literature, as in the best loved ballads, love is an illness from which few or none recover [???]. Because of it, Barbara's lover is doomed. [...] But what she does not as yet realize is that the disease is infectious. After her rash exposure, her death is almost equally predictable, and imminent. [...] The ideal of a love so complete and entire as to be essential to the continuance of life is a conceptual archetype persisting through the ages, through all literature, the greatest - and the least. [...]

      Barbara Allan is an extremely memorable song. It is next to impossible to get the narrative twisted. There are but two characters, [the tunes] act as we should expect them to do, and require no extra will-to-remember. [...]

      When someone asks, why all this fuss and bother, this endless trouble and expenditure of time on an old song, the answer is: because this old song, in its mere, sheer commonness, strikes to our very roots. (Bronson, Ballad 236ff)

    • [1967:] Only a small proportion of ballads are firmly localized. [...] Sundry versions of Barbara Allen give the young lady's dwelling-place at Scarlet town, London town, Quelick town (wherever that may be), as Reading, Newbury, Newry, Dublin, and as far afield as Lexington, Virginia, no doubt with a view to making the ballad interesting in whatever locality it is sung. (Lloyd, England 141)

    • [1977:] It is perhaps one of the most popular of the traditional ballads in America. It probably owes much of its popularity to its proliferation in print; in England and in Scotland it appeared constantly on broadsheets in the 1700s and 1800s.

      It has always seemed strange to me, as a woman singer, that Barbara should be branded "hard-hearted" simply because she did not reciprocate a man's love. In the earlier (mostly Scots) texts, however, Barbara was characterised as a spiteful, pretty girl who returned a small slight with a large one, who "with scornful eye" looked down upon the corpse - "her cheek with laughter swellin'." The ballad goes back to the late 1600s and it is a favourite pastime of many folklorists to tie its events into the life of Charles II, whose last mistress Barbara Villiers (hated by all but her royal lover) is often thought to be the anti-heroine of the ballad. The fact that earlier texts portray Barbara as malicious may lend veracity to this theory, but time and tradition, however, have certainly made her - and the ballad - more romantic and soft-hearted. (Notes Peggy Seeger, 'Cold Snap')

    • [1980:] The plot is unconvincing, but the ballad has held a place in men's affections for more than three hundred years. During that time, the feelings of Samuel Pepys and Oliver Goldsmith have been much quoted and widely shared. Pepys heard the actress, Mrs. Knipp: 'In perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song, Barbary Allen.' (1666)

      Goldsmith heard a humbler singer: 'The music of the finest singer is dissonance to what I felt when an old dairymaid sung me into tears with Johnny Armstrong's Last Goodnight, or The Cruelty of Barbara Allen.' (1765) (Palmer, Ballads 83)

    • [1989:] Think of the Jacobite songs [...] Who sings them now? Or who realizes that a song that has survived, Barbara Allen, was originally a political satire? (Ewan MacColl in Denselow, Music 20)

    • [1992:] I began to look at ballads like [this one] with fresh eyes, becoming more aware that the events in those songs were still going on: people did get murdered out of jealousy; people were still oppressed for trying to break out of old systems and ways of thought; people were still dying because of the loss of love in their lives. (Armstrong, Eye 69)

    • [1992:] Samuel Pepys in his "Diary" under the date of January 2nd 1665, speaks of the singing of "Barbara Allen." The English and Scottish both claim the original ballad in different versions, and both versions were brought over to the US by the earliest settlers. Since then there have been countless variations (some 98 are found in Virginia alone). (Anon, UWP Archive,

    • [2001:] This version was collected in Liddledale by Frank Kidson from the grand-daughter of Tibby Shiels, Sir Walter Scott's informant, and its first verse clearly sets the events in the Borders, the Graemes being a noted family in the Debatable Lands to the north of Carlisle. I heard Ewan MacColl sing it once and was very taken by it. I eventually found it in a collection owned by my friend Laurie Charlton. (Notes Louis Killen, 'The Rose in June')


    Quelle: England

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