Song lyrics published 1840 in the Forget Me Not Songster
|Published||17th century (earliest known)|
|Genre||Broadside ballad, folksong|
"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. 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."
The ballad generally follows a standard plot, although narrative details vary between versions. A servant asks Barbara Allen to attend on his sick master. She visits the bedside of the heartbroken young man, who pleads for her love. She refuses, claiming that he had slighted her while drinking with friends; he dies soon thereafter. Barbara Allen later hears his funeral bells tolling; stricken with grief, she dies as well. They are buried in the same church, a rose grows from his grave, a briar from hers, the plants form a true lovers' knot.
...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.
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". Additional printings were common in Britain throughout the eighteenth century. The ballad was first printed in the United States in 1836. 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".
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. 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". Ethnomusicologist Francis Child compiled these renditions together with several others found in the Roxburghe Ballads to create his A and B standard versions, used by later scholars as a reference.
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 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. The ballad opens by establishing a festive timeframe, usually stated as May, Martinmas, or Lammas. A dialogue between the two characters follows:
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", "Edelin", "Hard Hearted Barbary Ellen", "Sad Ballet Of Little Johnnie Green", "Sir John Graham", "Bonny Barbara Allan", "Barbry Allen" among others.
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. Quilter later incorporated the setting in his Arnold Book of Old Songs, rededicated to his late nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, and published in 1950.
The song often concludes with poetic motif of several stanzas describing symbolising fidelity in love even after death. Standard forms of such motifs are common to several ballads, including "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Lord Lovel", and "Fair Margaret and Sweet William".
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One of, if not the, earliest recordings is a 1907 performance by Joseph Taylor, collected on wax cylinder by the musicologist Percy Grainger in 1907. It was digitised by the British Library and made available online in 2018.
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.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.[verification needed]
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 to 1954 in the United States.
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", 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 " and Il Rovo e la rosa in Italian. On his French EN FRANÇAIS - BEST OF compilation in 2015 he sang this song in French-adaption written by Carla Bruni.
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 and premiered on BBC Radio 7 on February 16, 2009.
The song has also been sampled, quoted, and featured as a dramatic device in numerous films:
This folk song originated in Scotland and dates back at least to the beginning of the seventeenth century
Pepys - Diary - Vol 41