A favorite of George Washington, this haunting pentatonic tune is at least three centuries old and is claimed by England and Scotland both. In his diary entry of 2 January 1666 Samuel Pepys wrote, “It was a pleasure to hear Mrs. Kipp sing her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.” Probably the ballad was already well known when Mrs. Kipp sang it. Variations have appeared in Italy and Scandinavia, and almost one hundred versions survive in Virginia alone. The Library of Congress Archives contains at least 243 versions from twenty-seven states. Four years into the American Revolution the simple melody was conscripted by colonials and served as “Sergeant Champs” to tell of the Patriot who feigned desertion to entrap the notorious Benedict Arnold.
Sweet William’s death strikes sentimental chords in listeners even today. There is something both poignant and noble in his dying for love, for with his last words he cherishes his maiden despite her thorny treatment. So chivalric a leave-taking merits the blessings of the earth, and accordingly the entwining rose and briar bushes, suggesting the beauty and the pain of true love, rise above and beyond the mortal confines of grave and spire forever.
The two versions below illustrate the ballad’s elasticity. In the former Barbara’s cruelty appears willful, her sorrow the result of William’s death knell, whereas in the latter a more telling motivation is given. A third version of only six stanzas concludes with this moral:
“Farewell,” she said, “ye virgins all,
And shun the fault I fell in;
Henceforth take warning by the fall
Of cruel Barb’ra Allen.”
In times of complicated emotional truths and twisted psychological motivations, Barbara Allen’s cruelty possesses a simple beauty.
Barbara Allen (Child Ballad #84)
In Scarlet town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’
Made every youth cry Well-a-day,
Her name was Barb’ra Allen.
All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin’
Young Willie Grove on his death-bed lay,
For love of Barb’ra Allen.
He sent his servant to her door
To the town where she was dwellin’
“Haste ye come, to my master’s call,
If your name be Barb’ra Allen.”
So slowly, slowly got she up,
And slowly she drew nigh him,
And all she said when there she came:
“Young man, I think you’re dyin’!”
He turned his face unto the wall
And death was drawing nigh him.
“Goodbye, Goodbye to dear friends all,
Be kind to Barb’ra Allen.”
When he was dead and laid in grave,
She heard the death bell knelling,
And every note, did seem to say
Oh, cruel Barb’ra Allen.
“Oh mother, mother, make my bed
Make it soft and narrow
Sweet William died, for love of me,
And I shall die of sorrow.”
They buried her in the old churchyard
Sweet William’s grave was nigh hers
And from his grave grew a red, red rose
From hers a cruel briar.
They grew and grew up the old church spire
`Til they could grow no higher
And there they twined, in a true love knot,
The red, red rose and the briar.
* * * * *
(Samuel L. Forcucci, A Folk Song History of America)
So early in the month of May,
The green buds they were swelling,
A young man on his deathbed lay,
For the love of Barbara Allen.
He called his servant to his bed,
And lowly he said to him:
“Go bring the one that I love best,
And that is Barbara Allen.”
Slowly, slowly he got up,
And went to the dwelling;
Saying, “I’m sent for the one that he loves the best,
And that is Barbara Allen.”
Slowly, slowly she got up,
And slowly she went to him;
The very first word when she got there,
“Young man, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Do you remember the other day,
When we were at the tavern;
You drank a health to the ladies all,
And you slighted Barbara Allen.”
“Yes, I remember the other day,
When we were in the tavern;
I drank a health to the ladies all,
And three to Barbara Allen.”
“Do you remember the other night,
When we were at the ballroom dancing?
You gave your hand to the ladies all,
And slighted Barbara Allen.”
“Yes, I remember the other night,
When we were at the ballroom dancing;
I gave my hand to the ladies all,
And my heart to Barbara Allen.”
He turned his pale face to the wall,
His back upon the dwelling;
And all his friends cried out, “For shame,
Hard-hearted Barbara Allen.”
She hadn’t got more than a mile from town,
`Til she heard some death bell ringing.
And every knock it seemed to say,
“Hard-hearted Barbara Allen.”
She hadn’t gone more than another mile
`Til she spied his corpse a-coming,
“Lie down, lie down that cold pale corpse
And let me gaze upon him.”
The longer she gazed, the louder she cried,
And all of his friends a-telling,
“The loss of your sweet William dear,
Was the loving of Barbara Allen.”
Sweet William he died like it might be today,
And Barbara died tomorrow,
Sweet William he died out of pure, pure love,
And Barbara died for sorrow.
Sweet William was buried in the new churchyard,
And Barbara in another;
And out of his grave there grew a red rose,
From Barbara’s grew a briar.
The briar and the rose they grew together,
`Til they could not grow any higher,
They wrapped and they tied in a true lover’s knot,
For all true lovers to admire.