Monday, August 9, 2010

Song of the Week: "The Ballad of Barbara Allen"

In Punch’s Cousin, Lord Julian is reminded of his sister when he hears the traditional song, “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.” Also known as “Cruel, Barbara Allen,” "Barbara Ellen," "Barbara Allan," "Barb'ry Allen," and "Barbriallen,” the folk song by an unknown author most likely heralds from Ireland or Scotland. The first written mention of the song occurs in 1666 in the diary of English Naval Administrator and Member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys who referred to “Barbara Allen” as the “little Scotch song, ‘Barbary Allen.’” The Ballad of Barbara Allen was first printed in England in 1750 and in the United States, in 1837.

The song tells the tale of a young man (sometimes called Jeremy Grove or Jemmye Grove, sometimes Jimmy or William) whose unrequited love for the comely Barbara Allen so overwhelms him that he becomes deathly ill. The young man sends his servant to Barbara, pleading with her to come to his master’s side, hoping that an encouraging word from the beauty will fuel his master’s recovery. Barbara does, indeed, go to the young man’s bedside, but her hard-hearted reaction, “young man, I think you’re dying” only sickens the man further, causing his death.

Most versions of the song chronicle Barbara’s increased awareness of her cruelty as she walks home and hears the bells toll the death of the young man. Usually, the tale continues that she returns home to ask her mother to prepare her deathbed, “and make it long and narrow,” stating, “young Jeremy died for me today, I shall die for him tomorrow.” Before she dies, Barbara pleads to be buried next to the young man. In death, they are unified. From his grave a red rose grows, from hers, a briar. The two plants entwine in a “true love’s knot.”

Like most folk songs of unknown origin, “The Ballad of Barbara Allen” varies from version to version, however, the gist of the ballad remains the same—the realization of cruelty and a desperate attempt to right a wrong. Most versions find the song set in “Scarlet Town” possibly a pun on the English town of Reading. Some versions set the ballad in London or Dublin. Almost all versions describe the time as being in the “month of May.” In a few variations of the song, the young man is said to have slighted Barbara Allen by toasting the girls in the tavern and excluding Barbara, and, thereby causing her cruelty.

Long beloved, the ballad has been recorded by numerous artists and in a variety of genres. It figures prominently into many films—most especially as a musical motif in the 1951 British film version of A Christmas Carol called “Scrooge.” Its haunting melody and timeless theme will ensure that the tale of “Cruel Barbara Allen” will continue for centuries to come.


Anonymous said...

I have heard this song but never knew what it was called before. I like it. It makes your story even scarier too.

Dashwood said...

It really is a lovely tune and the essential story does seem to evoke a lot of attempts in the various versions to understand the rejection of love with the perplexion seemingly arising from the uncharacteristic cruelty of a young and pretty girl. It is also interesting that "Barbara" may connote both "Barbary", the wild coast and "Barbarian".

Joseph said...

That's an interesting observation, Dashwood. Thank you.