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.