Barbara Allen


After a bit of a ramble yesterday I thought I’d keep it brief today. Besides I think Jon’s comment says it all… “One of the great ballads in my view. I think we all know couples who seem to enjoy making each other miserable, but these two take it to a whole other level. The ‘rose and briar’ is one of the most enduring images to have come out of folk song.” Jon credits Phoebe Smith as his source and you’ll find a nice tribute to her here. The fact that she settled in Suffolk is probably what places this story in Cambridge, as location seems to be as the singer requires rather than permanently fixed. This Mudcat thread may or may not make things clearer. As a further note, this is a Child Ballad, referring to songs collected by Francis Child and therefore from an oral and probably Scottish source. As Jon explains “They may also need a bit of gentle modernisation/ Anglicisation for the purposes of the modern (Southern) folk singer.”

I said I wasn’t going to do this, but then again… It would take a few weeks of this before Reinhard and I got coordinated. I was a bit slow to cotton on to what a fantastic resource Mainly Norfolk was and much as I admire the Mudcatters and their incredible knowledge, it’s much more concise. I started sending Reinhard the schedules in advance to allow hiim to prepare and he’s added some great detail and today’s post is typical so have a look here.

You can buy the digital album now from the following stores:


32 Responses to “Barbara Allen”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Properganda. Properganda said: RT @folksongaday Latest Post: Barbara Allen […]

  2. Muzza says:

    I loved “The hunt is up”….and Jon has a great voice….
    BUT….If, from this version, I was hearing Barbara Allen for the first time , I would not pick up on the beautiful tune that it has. This version has flattened it so much.

  3. Jane Ramsden says:

    Seems Jon can sing as a lass left in the lurch in Blackwaterside, but has to Southernise this song. True, it is hard to aspire! Have you guessed, I’m a Northern lass?!
    This was one of the very first folk songs I learnt as a child. I do know and prefer a different tune, which I view as the ‘original’. Skips along a bit more than this for a song that is essentially a tale of woe! Interesting to hear a different rendition though, with nice credit to Phoebe Smith at the end. I can almost hear part of the ‘traditional’ tune in the opening lines of each verse, so maybe aural tradition of learning has changed it from the version I know to this, or vice verse-a! But, as we say in Yorkshire, ‘I weren’t struck!’

  4. Caroline Batchelor says:

    I’ve been following this young project with great interest. I was slightly disappointed when the unaccompanied songs started to develop instrumental backings and todays offering has left me slightly cold. I fear that the novelty might have worn off and the overly bleaty, self-rightous performances are starting to grate. I hope it’s not just a vehicle for a hoped for nomination as “Musician of the Year” at any of the awards ceremonies 😉

  5. edith lewis says:

    What a brilliant version.

  6. admin says:

    I would think that being nominated for “Musician of the Year” pretty poor reward for learning, singing and recording 365 songs. Equally I think it’ll be pretty hard to find someone who will love them all. Still, another one along tomorrow.

  7. Jon Boden says:

    Just a thought but if you sing a different version of a song why not record it on to your phone or computer, upload it to a file-sharing site (or youtube) and post a link here? It’d be great to have a few different versions up for people new to folk song.

    Sorry that not everyone is sold on this version of Barbara Allen. The original Phoebe Smith version is truly mighty (although no more fast or northern!) – not sure if it’s available on cd but well worth tracking down. Jon

  8. gordon potts says:

    It’s always a bit tricky hearing a different tune to something you know very well…a few repeats helped when i first heard Phoebe Smith sing this…only on record, i’m afraid..

  9. Stephen Witkowski says:

    I’d never heard this version before and found it very interesting. It makes me want to find the Phoebe Smith recording.

    I’d love to hear more versions of all these songs so I think Jon’s idea is a good one. I’m no singer (as all my friends would attest) and still new(ish) to folk so sadly cannot contribute!

  10. Phoebe Smith’s Barbara Allan is from the Topic LP Songs of the Open Road: Gypsies, Travellers & Country Singers (1975) . It is available for digital download at the usual big online stores.

  11. Oops, that should have been Barbara *Allen* in the last posting. How is it that you ever find typos after submitting only, in spite of careful re-reading? 😉

  12. Stephen Witkowski says:

    Thanks Reinhard. I’ve found this now. Jon is right to say this version is mighty. It’s around eleven minutes long! Smith’s voice is clear and strong which helps sell the song, even at this length.

  13. Nick Hallam says:

    More about Barbara Allen from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

    Barbara Allen is a very well sourced song. On checking the online Library Index there are 720 records of the song.

    When searched on Round No. this increases to 1094. It is very well travelled with records from across England and the USA. Including versions collected by Cecil Sharp during his Appalachian adventures.

    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.

    Further searches via the Take 6 Collections, reveal 22 results from the collections of Gardiner, Gilchrist and Butterworth including scans of their original notes. According to Maud Karpeles, as yet, unpublished biography, this is the only song that Sharp collected from a black singer.

    To find these go to enter the name of the song into the first empty field, select ‘Title’ from the drop down menu ‘all fields’ and press ‘submit search.

    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.

    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit

    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or

  14. Carolliz says:

    Wasn’t sold on the melody at first, but continued to listen, and by about halfway through, really liked it.

    My dad left England the day before war was declared on Germany, and he always loved English folk song. He once sent me on a hunt for the “right” words for this song, and although I came home from the library with 13 sets of words, not one of them were what he was looking for. (Pre-Internet days) Exasperated, I asked him what the right ones were. “Well, the ones I heard from a gypsy boy before I left England!” Upon reading the number of recorded versions, I see how hopeless my task really was.

    Fine job again, Jon. Thanks.

  15. Roberto Campo says:

    The Yellow Handkerchief – Phoebe Smith, ‘Traditional songs & ballads from England’s greatest gypsy singer’ – Veteran Tradition (VT136CD).

  16. Katy v d Berg says:

    Not sure why the song is described as ‘northern’? It has been collected in Scotland, (as ‘Bawbie Allan’) as also in America, and with various completely different tunes, but the earliest reference I have ever come across is in Pepys in the sixteen-sixties. He heard an actress sing it in a London theatre.

  17. Yehudit says:

    For years my all time favorite version was Frankie Armstrong’s (don’t know where she got it from). Then I heard what June Tabor did with it. Oh. My. God.

  18. Jane Ramsden says:

    I appreciated this song more, and definitely Jon’s singing, this second time around. I was thinking which version I knew from a child and I think it is more the one contained in this Wiki link than those Reinhard documents, though I know the versions are legion:

    Certainly I know it began ‘In Scarlet town, Where I was born, There was a fair maid dwelling, Made every youth cry well away. Her name was Barabara Allen.’

  19. John Biggs says:

    Beautifully sung, but oh dear ! Our singing group rejected this ballad when it was suggested we sing it. As one member said, “there are sad songs, there are miserable songs, and then there is Barbara Allen.

  20. Maz says:

    My mum, now 87, used to sing this to my maternal grandfather. He used to say to her…. “Sing Barbara Allen for me Margaret, it fair cheers me up” LOL.

  21. Maz says:

    I LOVE Isla St Clair’s version. And, you, Jon sing it soooo well. Such a crisp voice.

  22. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    My goodness……..some cutting remarks above!!! thank goodness Jon ignored them.
    and thank goodness I read Simon’s notes again or I would have missed the link to Mainly Norfolk!…….Blimey…so many versions…….here’s my twopennarth!

    In Scarlet town where I was born
    There was a fair maid dwelling
    And every youth cried well –a-day
    Her name was Barbara Allen

    Twas in the merry month of May
    The green buds were a swelling
    Sweet William on his deathbed lay
    For the love of Barbara Allen

    He sent a servant to her door
    To the town where she was dwelling
    Haste ye come to my master’s call
    If your name be Barbara Allen

    Slowly slowly she rose up
    Slowly slowly she came nigh him
    And all she said when standing by his bed
    Young man I think you’re dying

    He turned his face unto the wall
    And death was drawing nigh him.
    Good bye, Good bye to dear friends all,
    Be kind to Barbara Allen

    As she returned home o’er the fields
    She heard the death bell knelling
    And every stroke it seemed to say
    Cold hearted Barbara Allen

    Oh mother, mother make my bed
    And make it soft and narrow
    Sweet William died for love of me
    I’ll die for him tomorrow

    They buried her in the old churchyard
    Sweet William’s grave beside her
    And from his grave grew a red, red rose
    From her’s a cruel green briar

    They grew and grew to the steeple top
    Till they could grow no higher
    And there they twined in a true love’s knot
    The sweet red rose and briar

  23. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: Looking at your version above, I think the one I knew as a child is nearer that than the Wiki version, which has Ms Allen as more cold-hearted than I remember… the memory is like antique lace… faded with age & full of holes…

  24. Diana says:

    Hoorah Reinhard is back so I can get on Mainly Norfolk much quicker. There are different versions and places for this song but the theme remains much the same and I like it very much. One has to feel sorry for the poor chap though – she treated him shabbily.

  25. Diana says:

    Hi Linda, Jane says we will have to decide which bar to meet in, as you are upstairs and I am downstairs. Do you have any idea of the layout of the Lowry where the gig is. It is such a long time since I was there I just can’t remember.

  26. Linda says:

    Hi Diana , never been to the Lowry .had a look on the website and the Lyric circle bar seems to be the one for upstairs but can’t work out which one is downstairs any suggestions.
    Sorry Jon but whilst I appreciate this song I dont think it will make the car play list, it’s more a late night listen.

  27. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Diana & Linda: Just ring the Lowry and ask for advice about which bars will be open before, during and after that particular gig, then choose which one to flash your flowers in! Simples!

    Yes, I agree, Barbara Allen did treat the poor young man a bit shabbily and that’s hardly made up for by going off and dying hersen! Beautifully sung by Jon, but I still prefer the tune I know. What a stick-in-the-mud I am!

    But as per John Biggs above “there are sad songs, there are miserable songs, and then there is Barbara Allen.” Well, I have been listening to Jackie Oates most excellent ‘Saturnine’ (as sent to me by Pierre Walsh – thankee Pewter!) and I can say “there are sad songs, there are miserable songs, then there is Barbara Allen, and then there is Poor Murdered Woman!” – neatly followed by another tale of woe, ‘The Trees They Are So High,’ which Jon has also done on here. And the last track of the album is ‘Fortune Turns The Wheel.’ Haven’t heard that yet (driving in my car) but can highly recommend this CD, even superior to her ‘Violet Hour,’ IMHO.

    And one for Diana from the latest Spiral Newsletter is a snippet about John Jones from the Oysterband, which makes passing mention of his lovely voice. I note one Benji Kirkpatrick from Bellowhead is one of those joining John on his ‘walking gigs,’ ending up at the Village Pump Folk Festival to join Show of Hands for a Saturday evening main stage gig. Oysterband arrive at the festival to play on Sunday. Oooh, wish that was in my locality!

  28. Jane Ramsden says:

    Oh, go on! Let’s have another another jolly tale of woe as per the June Tabor & John Jones’ duet ‘My Son David’ on Ragged Kingdom that Diana liked:

  29. Diana says:

    Thanks Jane for your links – have followed them. Good of you to go out of your way so that I could be entertained by “My son David” in the flesh so to speak. A tale of woe certainly but not quite as grim as Fay’s “Henry”. Pleased to know who was dueting with June Tabor as he surely has a great voice. He is travelling a lovely part of the country too.

  30. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Folk is funny ain’t it
    ‘My son David’ as above, sung by June Tabor is quite a grim tale and shares (almost)the same tune as the cutesy Girl Guide sing ‘Donkey Riding’

  31. Cambridge is a new one to me ~ a bit too much vibrato ~ yes good “identification” with the feelings but maybe just sing from a “distance” as a bloke telling the tale?


  32. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    My goodness….Reinhard’s work on Mainly Norfolk is incredible and well done to Simon for having the foresight to link up the two sites…..Phew….just read up MN notes on Barbara Allen!

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