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Barbara Allen Origins and Lyrics

Traditional folk music has melodrama at the core of its telling. There is usually a central theme of murder or tragic death, unrequited love or some sense of tragedy in the telling of an event. Barbara Allen's central theme contains elements of all, as Sweet William becomes enamored with Barbara Allen who shuns his affections. Sweet William pines away for his unrequited love until he dies. Upon word of his death, Barbara Allen takes her own life and the two of them are buried aside one another. In time, a rose grows from Sweet William's grave and brier from Barbara Allen's and together the twisted vine grows along the wall in a waltz of tragic love. The symbolism for tragic love is often visualized by the intertwining of a red rose and a brier into a heart shape. This symbolism originates from the lyrics of this tune.

The exact origins of this tune are unknown but it is believed to be of Scottish origins from the Annan valley region and three centuries old. Who, other than the Scots, can tell such a tragic story as well? There are countless versions of this tune. Some peg it at nearly 100. It appears in Francis J. Child's five volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). Child conducted extensive research into the history of the words and themes rather than music of more than 300 tunes originating in Scotland and England.

This is a popular tune among folk artists hence the many versions. It has been recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Art Garfunkle, Bob Dylan, the Spinners, Pete Seeger and can often be heard during picking sessions.



In scarlet Town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwelling
Made many a youth cry well a day
Her name was Barbara Allen

It was in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swelling
Sweet William came from the west country
And he courted Barbara Allen

He sent his servant unto her
To the place where she was dwelling
Said my master's sick, bids me call for you
If your name be Barbara Allen

Well, slowly, slowly got she up
And slowly went she nigh him
But all she said as she passed his bed
Young man I think you're dying

Then lightly tripped she down the stairs
She heard those church bells tolling
And each bell seemed to say as it tolled
Hard hearted Barbara Allen

O, mother, mother go make my bed
And make it long and narrow
Sweet William died for me today
I'll die for him tomorrow

They buried Barbara in theold church yard
They buried Sweet William beside her
Out of his grave grew a red, red rose
And out of hers a briar

They grew and grew up the old church wall
Till they could grow no higher
And at the top twined a lover's knot
The red rose and the briar


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