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Halamus Publishing - Archived Articles - # 10, January, 2003



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

January, 2003:–

SONG:"Barbara Allen – Traditional

Q: Who was Barbara Allen?

Q: What is it about this song that makes it as popular today as it was 360 years ago?

A: The first known mention of the song "Barbara Allen" was an entry in Samuel Pepys' Diary, London, 2nd January, 1666. He referred to Mrs Knipp, the actress,

"…in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen".

It later appeared in Ramsay's 'Tea-Table Miscellany', (1723-4), Thomas Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry', (1765), as well as in Broadsides from the 17th Century until the end of the 19th century.

The lyrics of "Barbara Allen" have been adapted, changed, added to, omitted, etc, in the best oral tradition of successive generations of ballad singers.

There are at least 198 versions of "Barbara Allen", or "Barbary Allen, or Bawbee Ellen, or Barb'ra Allen.

The song is set in England, Scotland, Ireland, U.S.A. (Appalacian Mountains), Scarlet Town (=Redding, i.e. Reading, or maybe Carlisle), Charlotte Town, London Town, or in the Merry Month of May.

"Barbara Allen" has been

  • Scottish
  • English
  • Irish
  • American
  • hard-hearted
  • slighted
  • maligned
  • jilted
  • a witch, (Robert Graves: 'English and Scottish Ballads', 1957),
  • "The Brown Girl" (a farm worker? or perhaps a Gypsy?),
  • Silvestra ("The Decameron"(c.1350), by Bocaccio, Eighth Story, fourth night).
  • It has even been suggested that "Barbara Allen" may have been a political satire on the notorious Barbara Castlemaine, famous for her greed, infidelity, and general nastiness. (Barbara Palmer, nee Villiers, later Countess of Castlemaine, then Duchess of Southampton, and Duchess of Cleveland was, until 1671, a mistress of England's Merrie Monarch, Charles II (Stuart). She was not very popular, and the idea of a political satire on her is a distinct possibility).

Who was Barbara Allen? Well, I don't know. You work it out! I will give you the earliest known version of the words, links to other versions, and links to different versions of the melodies, or different melodies altogether.

And the young man? Different versions call him

  • a young man
  • Sweet William Green
  • Young William Grove
  • Jemmy Grove
  • Sir John Graeme

And was he

  • spoiled?
  • weak?
  • cheating?
  • devoted?
  • the luckless victim of an evil woman?
  • the victim of his own inability to communicate?

What did he do to Barbara Allen?

  • Nothing
  • Fell in love with her
  • Slighted or maligned her
  • Drank a toast to everyone but her
  • Bought drinks for everyone but her
  • Danced with every girl but her
  • Sat another girl on his knee
  • Announced his betrothal to a girl in his own social class (but not hers)

And how did the young man die?

  • From fever? Plague? And she caught it from him?
  • Tuberculosis?
  • Did he stab himself?
  • Or shoot himself?
  • Did she poison him, and then herself?
  • Did she stick pins in his wax image (witchcraft), and by doing so, destroy herself?

'According to the earliest known version, Barbara had no motive whatever. The young man was dying. She went slowly to his bedside. He died. She saw his corpse, and laughed. Then she died too'.

The Traditional (English) melody "Barbara Allen" is on Page 29 of

"Folksongs for the Violin", Part 1 : Discovering the Violin

(A Graded Selection of Melodies for Beginners of All Ages).

Details on the MUSIC PAGE

"Barbara Allen" may have been based on "The Ruined Lovers" –

'Being a rare Narrative of a young Man that dyed for his cruel Mistriss, in June last, who not long after his death, upon consideration of his intire Affection, and her own coyness, could not be comforted, but lingered out her dayes in Melancholy, fell desperate sick, and so dyed'.
(Tune of, Mock-Beggers Hall Stands Empty).

Another song on a similar theme:

"The dying Young-man, and the obdurate Maid",


'A strange and wonderful Relation of a Young-man that dyed for love about the midest of this present Iune, with the Maids perplexity for loss of her love, and how likely she is to dy for the same cause worthy the view of all young-men and Maids both in Country and City, delightfull to all, hurtful to none'.
(To the Tune of, Fancies Phenix).

For these two songs, go to: The Late Bruce Olson's Website, now hosted on Mudcat

[Scroll down to Section 2, Old songs, poems, tunes:

Scarce Songs 2 (click), then, in the Index, scroll down to

"The Ruined Lovers" (click), which is followed by "The Dying Young-man", and then "Barbara Allen's Cruelty"].

There is a decided similarity between more modern versions of "Barbara Allen" and "The Brown Girl" (Child Ballads #295).

For the words of "The Brown Girl, go to :;ttBRNGIRL2.html

Another version of "The Brown Girl", from the Copper Family Songbook, was at a Murdoch University site which no longer exists.

"Sir Thomas and Fair Eleanor":

Sir Thomas married the Brown Girl for her money and lands, but loved the penniless Fair Eleanor, whom he invited to his wedding, and set above his bride, slighting the Brown Girl.

The Brown Girl stabbed Fair Eleanor; Sir Thomas beheaded her, fell on his sword, and asked for all three to be buried in one grave.

However, Sir Thomas was buried beneath the church wall, and Fair Eleanor in the choir, producing the red rose, Sir Thomas the briar, and in due course, the plants intertwined, as in some "Barbara Allen" versions.

A: "Barbara Allen" would have been almost constantly in print, on broadsides, and in Ballad Collections from Pepys' time until the end of the 19th Century.

The song was taken to the New World (America and Canada) by early settlers, was popular in Revolutionary times, and was a favourite of President George Washington. Abraham Lincoln sang it as a boy growing up in Indiana.

"Barbara Allen" has become part of the Folk Song literature of every English-speaking part of the world.

Perhaps it is popular because it is so adaptable to different situations,
perhaps because it leaves so much to the imagination.

Or is it really the tune? Yes, but which tune?

I have found four, plus variants of these, and there are probably more. I find that I can't get the English tune (the one I adapted for "Folksongs 1") out of my head. And the other tunes also have their charm.

Is that its secret? Are the words really irrelevant?

To listen to "Barbara Allen, and/or for more info, go to:   and follow links to Child Ballad #84   for different lyrics  (link no longer exists)   for a different melody   (Henry's Songbook)   (and 513, and 38819)   
to see the Knott County, Kentucky version of lyrics and melody (add D or F#, followed by B to finish the melody).

For the English translation of Bocaccio's "Decameron", go to:


Barbara Allen's Cruelty;


The Young Man's Tragedy;
with Barbara Allen's Lamentation
for her Unkindness to her Lover and herself.

To the tune of, Barbara Allen.

In Scarlet Town where I was bound,
there was a fair maid dwelling,
Whom I had chosen to be my own,
and her name it was Barbara Allen.

All in the merry month of May,
when green leaves they were springing,
This young man on his death-bed lay,
for the love of Barbara Allen.

He sent his man unto her then,
to the town where she was dwelling,
'You must come to my master dear,
if your name be Barbara Allen.

'For death is printed in his face,
and sorrow's in him dwelling,
And you must come to my master dear,
if your name be Barbara Allen

'If death is printed in his face,
and sorrow's in him dwelling,
Then little better shall he be
For bonny Barbara Allen.

So slowly, slowly she got up,
And so slowly she came to him,
And all she said when she came there,
Young man, I think you are a dying.

He turned his face unto her then:
'If you be Barbara Allen,
'My dear,' said he, 'come pity me,
As on my death-bed I am lying.'

'If on your death-bed you be lying,
What is that to Barbara Allen?
I cannot keep you from death;
So farewell,' said Barbara Allen

  He turned his face unto the wall,
And death came creeping to him:
'Then adieu, adieu, and adieu to all,
And adieu to Barbara Allen!'

As she was walking on a day,
She heard the bell a ringing,
And it did seem to ring to her
'Unworthy Barbara Allen.'

She turned herself round about,
And she spy'd the corps a coming:
'Lay down, lay down the corps of clay,
That I may look upon him.'

And all the while she looked on,
So loudly she lay laughing,
While all her friends cry'd amain,
'Unworthy Barbara Allen!'

When he was dead, and laid in grave,
Then death came creeping to she:
'O mother, mother, make my bed,
For death hath quite undone me.

'A hard-hearted creature that I was,
To slight one that lov'd me dearly;
I wish I had been more kinder to him,
The time of his life when he was near me.'

So this maid she then did dye,
And desired to be buried by him,
And repented her self before she dy'd,
That ever she did deny him.


Printed for, P. Brooksby, J. Deacon, J. Blare, and J. Back.

["Samuel Pepys in his diary mentioned Mrs. Knipp's Scotch song of "Barbery Allen" on Jan. 2 1666. This Child ballad, #84, from the earliest known copy above is of 1690 at the earliest. There doesn't appear to be any 'Scotch' in this copy. The original tune for it is unknown.

I know I will be in a minority, but I believe this to be a very silly ballad. We see that Barbara Allen didn't live in the same town as the dying young man, and she doesn't seem to have laid eyes on him before she went to Scarlet town to see him on his death-bed. Since her friends were around when his corpse was being carried this must have been the town where Barbara Allen lived, wherever that was, not Scarlet town, wherever that was.

This looks rather like a reworked version based on the two earlier ballads above. More cliches were piled on later in order to 'fix' up the ballad, red rose and briar, and such".

– Bruce Olson ( Bruce Olson's Website ) ]

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