Barbara Allen, a traditional ballad.

Along with their meager belongings, during the Depression years, displaced farmers and other agricultural workers brought with them their cultural heritage, including the ballads and other folksongs they performed and enjoyed.1 Singing and making music took place both in private living areas and public spaces.  While the music performed by the migrants came from many sources, the majority of pieces belonged to the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition, songs such as “Barbara Allen.”2

A traditional Scottish Ballad, “Barbara Allen” has been said to be “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.”3

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.4

The earliest exiting reference to the song is a January 2nd, 1666 diary entry by Samuel Pepsys.  Recalling the fun and games of a New Years party, he also writes “…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.”5

Lyrics

Twas in the merry month of May
When green buds all were swelling,
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For 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
Young man I think you’re dying.

He turned his face unto the wall
And death was in him welling,
Good-bye, good-bye, 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
Hard hearted Barbara Allen.

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

And father, oh father, go dig my grave
Make it both long and narrow,
Sweet William died on yesterday
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, there grew a 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 lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar.


References:

  1. The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Collecting Expedition; (Accessed September 21, 2016.)
  2. The Migrant Experience; (Accessed September 21, 2016.)
  3. Roud, Steve & Julia Bishop (2012). The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs. Penguin. pp. 406–7. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5. (Cited in Wikipedia – accessed September 21, 2016)
  4. Wikipedia – (accessed September 21, 2016))
  5. The Diary of Samuel Pepys – 1666, page 1, By Samuel Pepys, University of California Press, Sep 1, 2000 (accessed September 23, 2016)
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