Barbara Allen (song)

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"Barbara Allen"
Forget Me Not Songster - Barbara Allen p.1.jpg
Lyrics to Barbara Allen in the Forget Me Not Songster, published 1840
Published 17th century (earliest known)
Form Broadside ballad and folksong
Writer(s) Traditional
Language English

"Barbara Allen" (Child 84, Roud 54) is a traditional Scottish ballad; it later travelled to America both orally and in print, where it became a popular folk song.[1][2][3] Ethnomusicologists Steve Roud and Julia 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."[4]

The ballad generally follows a standard plot, although narrative details vary between versions. Barbara Allen visits the bedside of a heartbroken young man, who pleads for her love. She refuses, claiming that he had slighted her at a prior affair; he dies soon thereafter. Barbara Allen later hears his funeral bells tolling; stricken with grief, she dies as well.[5][6]


A diary entry by Samuel Pepys on January 2, 1666 contains the earliest extant reference to the song.[3] In it, he recalls the fun and games at a New Years party:[7]

...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 have inferred the song was popular at that time. They suggested that it may have been written for stage performance, as Elizabeth Knepp was a professional actress, singer, and dancer.[4]

One 1690 broadside of the song was published in London under the 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".[8] Additional printings were common in Britain throughout the eighteenth century. 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. Throughout New England, it was 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".[9]

Lyrics and narrative[edit]

Several early complete versions of the ballad are extant. Scottish poet Allan Ramsay published "Bonny Barbara Allen" in his Tea-Table Miscellany published in 1740.[10] Soon after, Thomas Percy published two similar renditions in his 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry under the titles "Barbara Allen's Cruelty" and "Sir John Grehme and Barbara Allen."[11] Ethnomusicologist Francis Child compiled these renditions together with several others found in the Roxburghe Ballads to create his A and B standard versions,[5] used by later scholars as a reference.

It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a falling,
That Sir John Graeme in the west country
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
O Hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying,
And when she drew the curtain by,
'Young man, I think you're dying.'

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.[12][13] The dying man is called Sir John Graeme in the earliest known printings. American versions of the ballad often call him some variation of William, James, or Jimmy; his last name may be specified as Grove, Green, Grame, or another.[14] The ballad opens by establishing a festive timeframe, usually stated as May, Martinmas, or Lammas. A dialogue between the two characters follows:[15]

O it's I'm sick, and very, very sick,
And 't is a' Barbara Allan:'
'O the better for me ye's never be,
Tho your heart's blood were a spilling.
O dinna ye mind, young man,' said she,
'When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?'
He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
'Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allan.'
And slowly, slowly raise she up,
And slowly, slowly left him,
And sighing said, she coud not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.
She had not gane a mile but two
When she heartd the death-bell ringing,
And every jow that the death-bell geid,
It cry'd, Woe to Barbara Allan!
'O mother, mother make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow!
Since my love died for me to-day,
I'll die for him to-morrow.'

Common variations[edit]

As with most folk songs, "Barbara Allen" has been published and performed 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",[6] "Edelin", "Hard Hearted Barbary Ellen", "Sad Ballet Of Little Johnnie Green", "Sir John Graham", "Bonny Barbara Allan", "Barbry Allen" among others.[16]

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.[17] Quilter later incorporated the setting in his Arnold Book of Old Songs, rededicated to his late nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, and published in 1950.[18]

American versions[edit]

The song often concludes with poetic motif of several stanzas describing symbolising fidelity in love even after death.[19] Standard forms of such motifs are common to several ballads, including "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Lord Lovel", and "Fair Margaret and Sweet William".[14]

Notable contemporary performances[edit]

Versions of the song were recorded in the 1950s and 60s by folk revivalists including Pete Seeger. Jean Ritchie and Joan Baez both released versions of it in 1961.[20] Bob Dylan said that folk songs were highly influential on him, writing in a poem that "[w]ithout "Barbara Allen there'd be no "Girl From the North Country"; Dylan performed a live eight-minute rendition in 1962 which was subsequently released on Live at The Gaslight 1962. [21]

Charles Seeger edited a collection released by The Library of Congress entitled Versions and Variants of Barbara Allen from the Archive of Folk Song as part of its series Folk Music of the United States. The record compiled 30 versions of the ballad, recorded from 1933-54 in the United States.[22]

Baritone vocalist Royal Dadmun released a version in 1922 on Victor Records. The song is credited to the arrangers, Eaton Faning and John Liptrot Hatton.[23]

The ballad was covered as a demo version by Simon and Garfunkel on their anthology album The Columbia Studio Recordings (1964-1970) and a bonus track on the 2001 edition of their album Sounds of Silence as "Barbriallen," [24] and by Art Garfunkel alone in 1973 on his album Angel Clare.

Angelo Branduardi covered this song as Barbrie Allen resp. Barbriallen on his two Music Albums "Cosi e se mi pare - EP[25] " and "Il Rovo e la rosa[26] " in Italian. On his French EN FRANÇAIS - BEST OF Compilation in 2015 he sang this song in French-adaption written by Carla Bruni.[27][28]


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, Jane Campion's Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano, and the 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long.[29]

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[30] and premiered on BBC Radio 7 February 16, 2009.[31]


  1. ^ Raph, Theodore (October 1, 1986). American Song Treasury: 100 Favorites. Dover. p. 20. This folk song originated in Scotland and dates back at least to the beginning of the seventeenth century 
  2. ^ Arthur Gribben, ed., The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America, University of Massachusetts Press (March 1, 1999), pg. 112.
  3. ^ a b "Late Junction: Never heard of Barbara Allen? The world's most collected ballad has been around for 450 years". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 2016-02-07. 
  4. ^ a b Roud, Steve & Julia Bishop (2012). The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs. Penguin. pp. 406–7. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5. 
  5. ^ a b Child, Francis James (1965). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol. 2. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. pp. 276–9. 
  6. ^ a b Coffin, Tristram P. (1950). The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Philadelphia, PA: The American Folklore Society. pp. 87–90. 
  7. ^ Pepys, Samuel. "Diary of Samuel Pepys — Volume 41: January/February 1665-66". Project Gutenberg. Pepys - Diary - Vol 41 
  8. ^ "English Short-title Catalogue, "Barbara Allen's cruelty: or, the young-man's tragedy."". British Library. Retrieved May 8, 2012. 
  9. ^ Post, Jennifer (2004). Music in Rural New England. Lebanon, NH: University of New Hampshire Press. pp. 27–9. ISBN 1-58465-415-5. 
  10. ^ Ramsay, Allan (1740). "The tea-table miscellany: or, a collection of choice songs, Scots and English. In four volumes. The tenth edition.". Internet Archive. pp. 343–4. Retrieved 17 February 2016. 
  11. ^ Percy, Thomas. "Reliques of ancient English poetry". Internet Archive. pp. 102–8. Retrieved 17 February 2016. 
  12. ^ "The Ballad of Barbara Allen by Anonymous". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Bonny Barbara Allan, Traditional Ballads, English Poetry I: from Chaucer to Gray". Retrieved June 12, 2013. 
  14. ^ a b Coffin, Tristram P. (1950). The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society. pp. 76–9, 87–90,. 
  15. ^ Sauer, Michelle (2008). "The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry Before 1600". Infobase Publishing. p. 72. Retrieved 17 February 2016. 
  16. ^ Keefer, Jane (2011). "Barbara/Barbry Allen". Ibiblio. Retrieved January 16, 2013. 
  17. ^ Valerie Langfield, Roger Quilter: His Life and Music, p.202
  18. ^ Music Web International
  19. ^ Würzbach, Natascha; Simone M. Salz (1995). Motif Index of the Child Corpus: The English and Scottish Popular Ballad. Gayna Walls (trans.). Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 25, 57. ISBN 3-11-014290-2. 
  20. ^ Wilentz, Sean; Marcus, Greil. The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 13–4. 
  21. ^ Wilentz 1938, p. 14-15.
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Browse All Recordings | Barbara Allen, Take 4 (1922-04-05) | National Jukebox". 1922-04-05. Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  24. ^ "The Columbia Studio Recordings (1964-1970) - The Official Simon & Garfunkel Site". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  25. ^ "Angelo Branduardi - Cosi È Se Mi Pare". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  26. ^ Michele Laurent. "IL ROVO E LA ROSA Angelo Branduardi". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  27. ^ "En français - Best Of - Angelo Branduardi". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  28. ^çais-/release/6767329
  29. ^ "Travolta Sings For 'Bobby Long'". Billboard. 2004-12-29. Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  30. ^ "Barabara Allen by David Pownall". Radio Drama Retrieved June 11, 2013. 
  31. ^ "David Pownall - Barbara Allen broadcast history". BBC Online. Retrieved June 11, 2013. 

External links[edit]