Barbara Allen

“Barbara Allen” is another venerable Scottish ballad, but one that seems to have put down particularly strong roots in the United States. Kingman states that as of 1962, there were 243 transcribed versions in the Library of Congress[1].

Is that why I find this maudlin ballad of a lovesick youth on his deathbed spurned by his prospective sweetheart so sentimental and unconvincing? Familiarity breeds contempt, and perhaps I have heard it a few times too many.

But I think it is more. Although the folk ballad is a tragedy it lacks the mystical or magical power that underlies many others, and, in doing so, loses a lot of impact. The denouement, where Barbara Allen, stricken by her conscience, lays down and dies is completely unconvincing in real terms. The final image, of the rose and briar rising from the adjacent graves of the putative lovers and winding around each other is effective as metaphor, but again seems overly sentimental.

But, evidently, my opinion is not shared by others. No song would have accumulated as many variants and as widespread a distribution without appealing to a large number of listeners and performers. Perhaps its very familiarity aided its success – many people react positively to the familiar and are less accepting of the new. Furthermore, it is a readily acceptable and understandable story, the common meter ballad is easy to sing, and song is most often set to an attractive and simple folk melody. Recipes for success. But give me “Tam Lin” any day.

“Barbara Allen” with its absolute emphasis on the words and drama of the ballad all molded by the individual style of the folksinger, is prime Corporeal music.


[1] Kingman, Daniel American Music: A Panorama 2nd Ed. Thomson Schirmer 2003 p.6

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