Barbara Allen – Mysteries in a Ballad

When I was six years old, my mother’s cousin, Junie, got married.  The two had been lifelong friends, and for the service, I was chosen to be the ring-bearer, and my sister, the flower girl.  That summer we drove from our home in upstate New York, to Kalamazoo, where Junie lived.  I’m happy to say that recently, Mary and I travelled to Oregon to celebrate Junie’s 50th anniversary.

Junie’s father, the uncle who later taught me to play poker, was a renowned surgeon and they had a beautiful house with a separate guest cottage on a bluff above Lake Michigan.  There were lots of adventures along the shore of the lake, like capturing a snapping turtle I recognized as such from my Pocket Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, but one that stayed with me to the present day involved discovering a treasure trove of ballads.

The guest cottage had a box of old 78 recordings, and a book of lyrics and sheet music for a collection of American ballads.  There were two I listened to again and again because they haunted me with questions I didn’t understand then, and still can’t answer now.  The two were, “The Ballad of Barbara Allen,” and “The Ballad of Jessie James.”

Barbara Allen, which exists in as many as 92 versions, was first mentioned as “a little Scottish song” in 1666.  It came to our shores with the first settlers and was almost certainly popular well before the first printed versions appeared in England in 1750 and in America in 1836.  Barbara Allen is classified as Child Ballad 84.

In most versions, Sweet William lies on his death bed and sends his servant to fetch Barbara Allen, who reluctantly comes and says, “Young man, I think you’re dying.”  He says he is dying of love for her, but she will not have him, often because he bought a round of drinks for all the girls at the tavern a week before but not for her.  Sweet William dies of love for Barbara, and she dies the next day of sorrow.  Out of William’s heart there grows a rose and out of Barbara’s, a briar.  They grow and grow and finally form a lover’s knot above the graves.

The first thing you notice about this ballad is the lovely melody.  Then the haunting and tragic lyrics.  And then you realize it makes no sense.

Why is Barbara so cruel, I wondered as a kid and I wonder now.  Over a drink in the tavern?  Really?  I mean, really?  Even if, in that day and age, these kids were 14 or 15, and Barbara was a high school prima-donna, I’m not fully satisfied, and I bet you aren’t either.

And then you wonder, if William liked her so much, why did he buy drinks for all the girls except Barbara?  As in, “Dude, isn’t that playing a little too hard-to-get?”

There is also the mystery of Barbara’s change of heart and her subsequent death of sorrow.  I also wonder what real event or pair of star-crossed lovers might have inspired the song.

The supreme question, of course – and I chewed on this when I first heard the song at age six, is whether people really die of love?  Could it happen in the past, in simpler times, before eHarmony?   Especially for those like the Celts, who possess a genius for melancholy?

As a kid, I thought no.  Later, as a morose teenager, (I used to read Thomas Hardy for “fun”), I would have said yes, pining away is not that hard to believe.  As an adult, my response would have been, “Come on, William, get a grip.”  Now, from the Buddhist perspective of the ultimate power of mind, I would say, if you really believe you can’t live without a particular person, sooner or later it will come to pass.

This or that answer is not the point – the point is the questions.  I’ve recently been mulling over stories I have loved all my life, and so far I think they possess one of two qualities (or both) – one is characters I love so much they seem like a part of me, like Ratty and Mole.  The other is mysteries or questions I cannot solve.

Not surprisingly, I have collected quite a few versions of “Barbara Allen,” and this, by Emmy Lou Harris, I think is the best:

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3 Responses to Barbara Allen – Mysteries in a Ballad

  1. This is great! Your level of teenage morosity is hard to believe, but knowing your reading habits, I guess I believe it of you. 😉 It was nice to learn something about that pretty ballad, and I look forward to a post on The Ballad of Jesse James. By the way, I think from what I’ve read and heard about your childhood, it was quite a charmed one. The place on Lake Michigan sounds pretty fabulous.

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  2. Cat In Books says:

    I grew up hearing my dad sing this song, so I’ve wondered about Barbara Allen myself. They do sound very angsty–very Romeo and Juliet. It doesn’t seem like Barbara really wanted William to die or not to be with him because she does a quick about-face when he actually does die. It seems like she just couldn’t get over being mad at him. I think she thought he’d suffer for a while, then come back to appologize. He was obviously totally clueless that his flirting with the other women had ticked her off–I’m imaging a conversation along these lines: “What’s wrong?” “If I have to tell you what’s wrong….”

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    • Way back in college, while studying Yeats, I read a book of Irish folktales he collected by tramping around the remote regions of Ireland. Some of his elderly tellers, for instance, spoke Gaelic but no English (and this in the early 20th c.) so these stories were old. You could see them in the process of morphing from history to legend. I don’t mean to imply that all folklore is historical by any means but many of these clearly were, for example, with characters who had names.

      One was a beautiful young woman named Mary Hines, who died when she was young. The storyteller said her beauty was to great to survive in this poor fallen world. Or maybe she sneezed and someone forgot to say, “God Bless you.”

      Living out in the country with, presumably, a not so good diet and an often cold and rainy climate, I’m sure there are many ways to die young, but that is not how imagination had shaped the tale. I feel that the Ballad of Barbara Allen presents a similar “shaping” that didn’t quite wind up with a “satisfying” folktale shape.

      “A woman dies young because her beauty is too great for this world” is a coherent folktale. Barbara Allen falls just a bit short of that, but I guess that is what makes it so intriguing.

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