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Hard-Hearted Barbara

Updated: Aug 7

For well over 450 years people have been singing and playing some version of "Barbara Allen", one of the oldest and most collected folk songs in the English language. The beguiling story and infatuating tune have brought a tear to many an eye.

The story reads like the script of a Middle Ages soap opera: In the town of Scarlet (or London, or Dublin) lives a fair maid who turns many a head, including that of young William (or John, or Jimmy) who wins her over. However, “Sweet William” becomes a bit of a cad in Barbara’s eyes when he toasts a couple of young ladies in a tavern while in her company. At some point afterward, (generally described as either the merry month of May or around Martinmas day in the Fall), William becomes ill to the point that he takes to his death bed. We never find out what he’s suffering from, but at the time of the inception of the song, you were likely to die from just about anything, including dirty looks. He sends his servant to fetch Barbara so that he may say his final goodbye, but she offers only the cold observation that he appears to be dying. Still miffed from being slighted at the tavern, she then leaves without giving him a goodbye kiss. Later, hearing a church bell tolling William’s death, Barbara is overcome with regret and realizes she’s been a bit hard on the lad. She then decides to die as well. But…to reconcile the tragedy, the two are buried side by side in the old church yard. Eventually a rose grows from William’s grave, a briar from Barbara’s, and the two plants entwine to form a “true lover’s knot” as the “rose grew ‘round the briar.”

Over its long existence the song has been known by alternate titles: “The Ballet of Barbara Allen”, “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty”, “Barbarous Ellen”, “Edelin”, “Hard Hearted Barbary Allen”, “The Sad Ballet of Little Johnny Green”, “Sir John Graham”, “Bonny Barbara Allen”, “Barbry Allen”, and who knows how many more, but the arc of the story remains intact.

English Parliamentarian, diarist, and wit Samuel Pepys is the first to mention Barbara Allen in print. He describes hearing it during New Year’s festivities in 1666:

"Up by candlelight again, and wrote the greatest part of my business fair, and then to the office, and so home to dinner, and after dinner up and made an end of my fair writing it, and that being done, set two entering while to my Lord Bruncker's, and there find Sir J. Minnes and all his company, and Mr. Boreman and Mrs. Turner, but, above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of 'Barbary Allen'"

Writer Oliver Goldsmith in 1765 confesses “an old dairymaid sung me into tears with…’The Cruelty of Barbara Allen.’”

The author of Barbara Allen is unknown. It’s also unknown if it originated in Scotland, England, or some other place. The song was most likely introduced into the public domain by a wandering troubadour, and eventually passed down through generations like a family heirloom. Ballads and dance tunes were as much a part of people’s lives and culture as their furniture, pets, or any other possessions. And when immigration to the New World began, those who left their ancestral homes for whatever reasons brought their music with them. The song arrived in America with English and Scots-Irish colonists in the seventeenth century and gradually made its way throughout the country during expansion, slightly reinterpreted each time it was passed along.

The song’s first publication was in 1690 as a Broadside Ballad: a hand-printed single sheet of cheap paper featuring verse and occasionally a woodcut illustration, usually selling for about a penny. Its popularity continued into the eighteenth century with another printing titled “Bonny Barbara Allen” in 1740, and later as two different versions included in a 1765 collection: Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The selections were called “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty” and “Sir John Grehme and Barbara Allen.” The first sheet music version in the U.S. was printed in 1836, where it became a repertoire staple for any parlor musician who could carry a tune.

American musicologist Alan Lomax wrote in his book The Folk Songs of North America: “This ballad, if no other, travelled west with every wagon.” “They sang Barbara Allen in Texas”, he continues, “before the pale faces were thick enough to make the Indians consider a massacre worthwhile.”

There are in the neighborhood of around 500 recordings of the song, including one by Joan Baez, as well as Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel (and a later solo effort from Garfunkel that is over-the-top melodramatic, but nonetheless hauntingly beautiful), Tom Rush, Pete Seeger, the Everly Brothers, Jean Ritchie and countless others from the folk idiom. Loftier, more refined versions have been adapted for the classical world by the likes of Andreas Scholl for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as well as numerous choral works, and various solo instrumental treatments. There is also a wonderful arrangement by Steven Bernstein that provides the background for a touching scene in the classic 1951 British movie production of “A Christmas Carol.”

But the earliest known recording of "Barbara Allen" is from 1907. It was recorded on a wax cylinder by composer and musicologist Percy Grainger of Lincolnshire folk singer Joseph Taylor. A copy of the recording still exists, but you’ll have to listen to it in the British Library Reading Rooms. However, for a good collection featuring various artists and versions try out this podcast:

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