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Barbara Allen -- Anonymous

(Poem #548) Barbara Allen
 In Scarlet town, where I was born,
 There was a fair maid dwellin',
 Made every youth cry Well-a-day!
 Her name was Barbara Allen.

 All in the merry month of May,
 When the green buds they were swellin',
 Young Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay,
 For love of Barbara Allen

 He sent his men down to her then,
 To the town where she was dwelling:
 "O haste and come to my master dear,
 Gin ye be Barbara Allen."

 So slowly, slowly rase she up,
 And slowly she came nigh him,
 And when she drew the curtains by--
 "Young man, I think you're dyin'."

 "O it's I am sick and very very sick,
 And 'tis a' for Barbara Allen." --
 "O the better for me ye'se never be,
 Tho your heart's blood were a-spillin'!.

 "O dinna ye mind, young man," said she,
 "When the red wine ye were fillin',
 That ye made the healths gae round and round,
 And slighted Barbara Allen?"

 He turned his face unto the wall,
 And death was with him dealin':
 "Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
 And be kind to Barbara Allen!"

 And slowly, slowly raise she up,
 And slowly, slowly left him,
 And sighing said she could not stay,
 Since death of life had reft him.

 As she was walkin o'er the fields
 She heard the dead-bell knellin',
 And every jow that the dead-bell geid,
 Cried, "Woe to Barbara Allen!"

 "O mother, mother, make my bed!
 O make it saft and narrow:
 My love has died for me today,
 I'll die for him to-morrow."

 "Farewell", she said, "ye virgins all,
 And shun the fault I fell in:
 Henceforward take warning by the fall
 Of cruel Barbara Allen."
-- Anonymous
        (Child Ballad #84)

c. 17th Century, but at least a few centuries older in oral tradition.

A classic folk ballad - life and love, drama and death, with a strong dash
of moral judgement thrown in. (Perhaps the true contemporary heir to the
folk ballad is the soap opera!) The morality might seem slightly archaic
today, especially the very androcentric slant, but that shouldn't preclude
enjoyment of the poem.

I've been planning to run a Child ballad for a while, and today's was the
obvious choice, being a friend of my youth. I remember what mostly caught my
fancy back then was the sound of the poem, a combination of the dialect and
the rhythm; interestingly, I'd forgotten most of the poem completely, except
for the last two verses, and therefore remembered it as a poem about a woman
who scorned her true love, and then killed herself out of repentance.
Rediscovering[1] the fact that he had slighted her first was quite a

[1] or perhaps just discovering - many versions leave that bit out, no doubt
to strengthen their 'moral'

On the Child Ballads:

 Francis Child's five-volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
 (1882-1898), is considered by many as the basis of traditional Anglo-Celtic
 folk music, as both the motifs like the popular characters like the
 mythical Tam Lin and the might have been real Robin Hood, and the actual
 songs still played by many a musician are contained within this work. And
 just as importantly, the Child Ballads are crucial to present day writers
 who use the old folk ballads.


 So why is the English and Scottish Popular Ballads so valuable? First we
 need a definition of what a ballad is. Funk & Wagnall's Online Dictionary
 defines a ballad thus: "short narrative folk song that fixes on the most
 dramatic part of a story, moving to its conclusion by means of dialogue and
 a series of incidents. The word ballad was first used in a general sense to
 mean a simple short poem. Such a poem could be narrative or lyric, sung or
 not sung, crude or polite, sentimental or satiric, religious or secular; it
 was vaguely associated with dance. The word is still commonly used in this
 loose fashion. In the field of folklore, however, ballad is applied
 specifically to the kind of narrative folk song described in the opening
 lines. These narrative songs represent a type of literature and music that
 developed across Europe in the late Middle Ages. Unlike the medieval
 romances and rhymed tales, ballads tend to have a tight dramatic structure
 that sometimes omits all preliminary material, all exposition and
 description, even all motivation, to focus on the climactic scene (as in
 the British "Lord Randall"). It is as though the ballad presented only the
 last act of a play, leaving the listener or reader to supply the antecedent
 material. When the ballad emerged, it was a new form of art and literature,
 distinct from anything that had gone before."


 Child's contribution in researching, compiling, and publishing the English
 and Scottish Popular Ballads, was that he documented the very roots of
 English speaking ballads as versionthey still existed in the late Victorian
 period. This -- and its effects on popular folk music and written
 literature -- is why the Child Ballads (as they are most often called)
 remain a seminal work.

        -- [broken link]

 Follow the link and read the whole piece - it's well worth a look.


Some other versions of the lyrics ('Barbara Allen', like most ballads, has
no 'definitive' text)
  - [broken link]

Both links contain MIDI files of the melody

Bob Blair draws an interesting parallel between ballads and urban legends:

An excellent page on folk music:

The complete catalogue of Child ballads:

The androcentricity reminds me of Goldsmith's 'When Lovely Woman Stoops to


55 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Kuhn Jimmy said...

This not really a poem but one version of lyrics to a song that is believed
to be about 400 years old. In Virginia there are over 20 versions of the
song. It's origins are believed to be in the Annan valley of Scotland. You
might contact Black friar's music store in Edinburgh for more information

Stan Froud said...


We learned this song - and its tune - while I was in school in the UK
some sixty odd years ago.

I has just popped mysteriously back into my head. I could only
recall and sing the first verse.

Odd how the human brain recalls stuff from the way distant past, but
loses track of what happened yesterday.

Stan Froud

B1ZzYI3 said...

hi! I am using your website to write a compare and contrast about two
different versions of Barbara Allen and i cant quite understand what someof
the words mean. if you could hlp me in anyway by writting me back and tellin
me what some of those words mean it would be very appreaciated....
Made every youth cry Well-a-day!

And when she drew the curtains by--

And 'tis a' for Barbara Allen." --"O the better for me ye'se never be,Tho
your heart's blood were a-spillin'!.

"O dinna ye mind, young man," said she,"When the red wine ye were
fillin',That ye made the healths gae round and round,And slighted Barbara

"Farewell", she said, "ye virgins all,And shun the fault I fell
in:Henceforward take warning by the fallOf cruel Barbara Allen."

Stellamozzarella said...

One of my very favorite poems. It seems to ebb and flow. You can barely
feel the undertow as it sucks you under. before you realize it, your
drowning and death's knell impales you to the bottom of the sea and you know
its your due. the waves crash overhead but your no longer separated. You've
become a part of it all.

All in all, I'd give it an 85. you can definitely dance to it.

Miriam Brown said...

"When she drew the curtain by" prolly means "drew it aside".

This song has been haunting me ever since I saw the very funny movie "Best of Show". In one scene, two gay men who are showing one of their dogs phone home to talk to another dog. One of the men sings the dog its favorite song, a stanza of a version of Barbara Allen: "And from his grave grew a red, red rose, And out of hers, a briar." Oddly enough the entire song popped back into my mind, from who knows where.

I attended a party recently and sang this song to a small group, engendering much interest!

Wonderful website, BTW.


Ray MacLeod said...

This is a song that drew me to folk music as a child. My late mother knew three versions, just as she knew several of the Whistling Gypsy/Black Jack Davy/Raggle Taggle Gypsy ilk.

A few years ago, a (very) young Canadian folk group called The Cotters were stopping shows with a song they called The Briar and the Rose. To me, it sounded like another Barbara Allen/Ellen derivation. The mother of two group members, an old friend from the 60s, insisted not. Does anyone besides me see the similiarities? Know the songs involved?

As for Barbara Allen, I was told in the 1960s at a folk song clinic that there were over 600 known versions, over half of them in America.

michele nicely said...

i remember the poem being told to me in this way
in london city where i once did roam
thats where i got my learnin
i fell in love with a pretty young lass
her name was barbri allen

i courted her for seven long years
till i could wait no longer
sweet william ....etc etc etc

would love to find that version that my mother had in an old book that has probably turned to dust

أيفون said...

michele nicely : yes me to a got told like that way

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buy pregabalin said...

It sounds good poem and stanzas specially this "O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow:
My love has died for me today,
I'll die for him to-morrow."

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