Breedloves's Folk Songs

The Ballad of Barbara Allen

  • “The Ballad of Barbara Allen”, also known as “Barbara Ellen”, “Barb’ry Allen”,
    “Barbriallen”, etc., is a folk song known in dozens of versions. It has been classified as
    Child Ballad 84. The author is unknown, but the song may have originated in England,
    Ireland or Scotland. The earliest known mention of the song is in Samuel Pepys‘ diary for
    1666 where he refers to the “little Scotch song of ‘Barbary Allen'”. Bob Dylan, Colin
    Meloy, Thomas Baynes, Michael Hurley, Art Garfunkel, Simon & Garfunkel, Burl Ives,
    The Grateful Dead, Eddy Arnold, Moses Clear Rock Platt, and many others have
    recorded the song.
    Most versions of “Barbara Allen” can be summarized thus: a young man is dying of
    unrequited love for Barbara Allen; she is called to his deathbed but all she can say is,
    ‘Young man, I think you’re dying.’ When he dies, she is stricken with grief and dies soon
    after. Often, a briar grows from her grave and a rose from his, until they grow together.
    Not surprisingly, given that this is a ballad of unknown age and origin, largely passed
    down orally, the details of the story vary significantly in different printed and recorded
    versions. The setting is usually in the fictitious Scarlet Town (possibly a pun on the
    English town of Reading, pronounced “redding”), although London town and Dublin
    town are also popular. The action usually takes place “in the merry month of May”
    although some versions place it in the autumn. The young man who dies of a broken heart
    is usually called Sweet William or some slight variant such as young Willie Grove, sweet
    Willie Graeme. In other versions the name is Sir John Graeme. The version printed below
    calls him Jemmye Grove. Some longer versions of the ballad explain Barbara’s “cruelty”
    by saying that she (mistakenly) believed that the young man slighted her first. Johnny
    Cash re-wrote lyrics to this song and performed it live at Austin City Limits in 1987.
    In Scarlet town where I was born
    There was a fair maid dwelling
    And every youth cried well away
    For her name was Barbara Allen
    Twas in the merry month of May
    The green buds were a swelling
    Sweet William on his deathbed lay
    For the love of Barbara Allen
    He sent a servant unto her
    To the place she was dwelling
    Saying you must come to his deathbed now
    If your name be Barbara Allen
    Slowly slowly she got up
    Slowly slowly she came nigh him
    And the only words to him she said


    Young man I think you’re dying
    As she was walking oer the fields
    She heard the death bell knelling
    And every stroke it seemed to say
    Hardhearted Barbara Allen
    Oh mother mother make my bed
    Make it long and make it narrow
    Sweet William died for me today
    I’ll die for him tomorrow
    They buried her in the old churchyard
    They buried him in the choir
    And from his grave grew a red red rose
    From her grave a green briar
    They grew and grew to the steeple top
    Till they could grow no higher
    And there they twined in a true love’s knot
    Red rose around green briar

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