I learned this song from a recording by the late north Georgia singer Jim Padgett and his then-wife Mary, back in the early 1980s. It wasn’t until quite recently that I learned it was written and originally recorded by Jimmie Skinner.
Archive for February, 2011
I’m told that this song–Child Ballad 84–was one of my paternal grandfather’s two favorite songs (the other being the old eerie camp meeting tune “Wayfarin’ Stranger”). “Barbara Allen” first appeared on a broadside c. 1750, but its roots go back at least a century before that. Samuel Pepys, that indefatigable diarist, mentions it as “the little Scotch song of ‘Barbry Allen'” in a January 1666 entry.
There are a number of exceptional recordings of this ballad about a cold, self-absorbed woman who rejects a true love, only to repent when he falls ill and dies. This one, by the great bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman, happens to be my favorite one.
I seem to recall reading once that the great song collector Alan Lomax once received a request from a man in Georgia, from whom Lomax had been collecting songs, to sing “Bob’ry Allen”. The man told him that he had learned the song at his mother’s knee, and although he did not sing it himself, it “seems like ever time I hear it, the hair stands up on the back of my neck.”
There is something a bit hair-raising about this ballad–not in the sense that it’s spooky, but more because it’s so romantic–the last two verses in particular:
She was buried in the old churchyard
And he was buried nigh her
On William’s grave there grew a red rose
On Barbara’s grew a green briar
They grew to the top of the old church tower
Till they could not grow any higher
They lapped and tied in a true lover’s knot
The red, red rose around the briar. . .
These verses are sort of portmanteau ones, appearing in several other traditional ballads (most notably one called “Lord Lovell”, I think), but they seem to fit “Barbara Allen” best of any.
I was fortunate enough to see the late great Jimmie Skinner in concert when he appeared up on the old baseball field at Tellico, in late summer when I was about to begin my senior year of high school. He was old–nearly seventy–and his strong and distinctive voice was softened by age–but damn, he put on a great show, singing nearly all of the great songs he wrote. This one is one of my favorites of his, probably recorded c. 1950.
On his 1992 album This One’s Gonna Hurt You, Marty Stuart recorded “Doin’ My Time” with Johnny Cash. Here’s a live performance:
On the album this piece begins in a different key and rocks hard, like some of Cash’s old Sun sides. Me, though, I hear Skinner’s influence in both versions.
Skinner was one of the greats, for certain, but not as well remembered as I might wish. 😦
There are many stories of people who, for whatever reason, place curses on the living from their deathbeds. One of the most potent is said to have been placed by accused witch Giles Corey as he was pressed to death in Salem, Massachusetts on September 19, 1692; specifically on Sheriff George Corwin, who was overseeing Corey’s brutal death. George Corwin died a few years after–still a young man–of a sudden massive heart attack. It would seem, though, that the curse followed not only Corwin, but the sheriffs of Salem who came after him. Author Robert Ellis Cahill, one of those sheriffs, has said that he was forced to leave office because of a heart ailment–and so, he says, did all the sheriffs before him for whom cause of death is known.
The following story isn’t quite so dramatic, but when I ran across it recently I was enchanted by it, as a music lover, because the curse was placed in song. It comes from Dane Love’s 1995 Scottish Ghosts and begins with the old truism–it’s hard for two people to keep a secret.
The MacLeans of Brolass, in the Mull district of Scotland, had two lovely daughters of marriageable age. The two were as different as could be in temperament; Elizabeth was easily pleased, it seemed, for she married the first man who proposed to her.
Her younger sister Margaret was another story altogether. Now Margaret–unlike a certain Shakespearean character who had trouble finding a husband–was no shrew, but she flatly refused all offers of marriage. Her parents were angry about this, and frequently called her too picky and ordered her to tell them why she was so against the idea of chosing one of her numerous suitors, but she remained defiant and silent.
The aggrieved parents finally left it up to happily married, wheedling sister Elizabeth, who remained close to Margaret, to get the reason out of her. It was that simplest and most dramatic of all reasons: Margaret was in love, and with a man of whom her parents would never approve. He was a MacDonald, and, unfortunately, the MacLeans of Mull and the MacDonalds were feuding at the time. To avoid complications, and in hopes of making a life together, the Scots Romeo and Juliet were planning to elope, and never return to Mull.
Margaret swore her sister to secrecy, but Elizabeth was one of those constitutionally incapable of keeping a secret, no matter what promises she made. Her bottom didn’t touch the seat of a chair before she confided Margaret’s secret to her husband.
And, unfortunately for Margaret and her lover, Elizabeth had married a man whose bottom didn’t touch the seat of a chair before he was planning to foil the elopement.
The perfidious brother-in-law got together several of Margaret’s rejected suitors, and, on the night when the two made their way to MacDonald’s boat, planning to sail away to a new life together, the posse intercepted them. In the ensuing melee, young MacDonald was stabbed to death. Margaret, screaming and sobbing, flung herself over his corpse, but was dragged away to be taken home in disgrace. She looked back on her dead lover, calling out the dignity of the MacDonalds through her tears, then flung a taunt at brother-in-law and suitors: the conceit of the MacLeans.
Somehow, she managed to break away and ran out onto the moors. Located a few weeks later, she was taken home, but starvation and exposure to the weather had weakened her to the point of death.
On her deathbed, she sang a song in which she foretold her parents’ deaths, Elizabeth’s ruin, and bewailed the loss of her lover.
My mother’s chair is empty, empty and cold,
My father, who loved me, sleeps in death,
My sister, her promise broken, all has told;
I am without kin, without lover, I have only breath.
Sister, may ill befall all that you loved best,
May neither rain nor dew bless the soil you till,
May no child of yours want your arms in rest,
May your cattle find no food upon the hill.
I am searching the moors and the bens,
All the spots where I courted my dear,
I am searching the mountains and the glens,
But he is not here, not here. (Love, pages 175-6)
The song is haunting enough in English; in Scots Gaelic, it would never leave the ear or heart.
Margaret died within hours of singing that song, and the Doom of the MacLeans followed not long after. Her father and mother died within days or weeks of one another, it’s said of grief.
And upon Elizabeth fell the full power of that second verse.
Shortly after Margaret’s death, Elizabeth’s husband left her. Suddenly impoverished–for most likely any property she might have inherited from her parents her husband took out of the marriage–, Elizabeth lived out the rest of her days as a beggar, dying childless and alone.
They say that Elizabeth’s spirit still wanders around Brolass, a quiet shade who no doubt bears a weight of sorrow for the doom her loose lips brought down upon her.
And sometimes, people report hearing a voice singing in the area of the old MacLean home:
Margaret, still singing her curse to the empty air.
Perhaps she sings to remind people of the tragedy a secret thoughtlessly shared can cause.
Over at Much Ado About Nothing my buddy Anna Molly posts a question (check out the comments sections) in which she asks “when’s the last time you heard a song about blue that wasn’t. . .well, blue?”
And I remembered this one, which my beloved Teddy and Doyle Wilburn released as a B side way back in 1957. It’s sung in a bluesy style, but the words aren’t so bluesy.
On the other hand–there are some songs out there that are blue in a somewhat–ahem–pornographic sense, but I don’t think she had those in mind– (^_^) 😀
Anyway, we had this song on an album called Carefree Moments. The whole album (which came out, if I remember right, c. 1959) is a good ‘un, but this is one of the highlights.
Enjoy, AM– 😉
Hyacinths have exploded
at the western rim of the world
bells withered to the winking purple
of the sea
lie thin as glass in a straight strand
beneath a sanding of dusty amethyst
a blush of mauve
along reefs of rose pink
crowned with snow cream
stars falling in silver sprinkles
on the last swirl of froth
before the velvet night
Poem copyright 2004/2011 by Faire Lewis
PS Got good news–Mom will be coming home in about three weeks! Been a long while–but things are looking up– 🙂
It’s a tossup today: I could write about how Al Capone was haunted to his own death by a gangster killed in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or I could post love songs.
Well, I’ve posted bloody Valentines before–
so this year, I’m going with music.
The late Johnny Cash was–and remains, to me and many others–a wonder. He could go from a tough muscular song like “Folsom Prison Blues” or a rudely funny one like “A Boy Named Sue” or a working man’s fantasy like “Oney” without seeming even to draw breath.
And he sang a few devastatingly great love songs too.
One such is “Flesh and Blood”, recorded in 1970 for the soundtrack of a film called I Walk the Line, which starred Gregory Peck and is not to be confused with the 2005 biopic Walk the Line. I’ve always thought that surely JR wrote this for his beloved June Carter. It’s remarkably sweet and tender, and the nature imagery is perfectly suited to the sentiment.
In 1971, Cash recorded “A Thing Called Love”. Written and recorded by Jerry Reed in 1968, it had been recorded by other acts before Cash, but nobody–not even Reed, whose version is gently rueful–ever quite put it across exactly what this thing called love is the way JR did.
(The children’s choir doesn’t hurt either.)
Happy Valentine’s Day, my friends. May love be with you, this day and every day.