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“Barbary Allen”

Laura… thought how the moonlight would be shining in the fairy ring where the violets grew. It was just the night for fairies to be dancing there. Pa was singing with the fiddle: ‘In Scarlet town where I was born, there was a fair maid dwellin’… — By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 32, “Evening Shadows Fall”

Barbary Allen (or “Barbara Allen”) dates from at least the 17th century and its story is basic to folk literature everywhere: an unanswered plea and sorrowful death. The earliest mention of the ballad is in the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), British naval administrator and Member of Parliament; he wrote of hearing the “old Scotch tune” in 1666. It was included in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of American English Poetry, Volume III, 1765. Since coming to America, “Barbara Allen” has sometimes adopted a distinctly American identity, with hundreds of versions being written, sung, and recorded. Most versions end with the couple being buried side-by-side, and a blood-red rose growing from Sweet William’s grave (Jemmy Grove in Percy’s version; Johnnie Grove in Charles Ingalls’), while from Barbara Allen’s grave a briar grew. The two plants were soon entwined in a lover’s knot.

It is interesting that Laura Ingalls Wilder included (or that Charles Ingalls sang) a song of such loss at the “new beginning” celebration on the homestead shanty in Dakota Territory. In the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder originally had Pa sing two more songs in this last part of the book: “The Beacon-Light of Home” (which was moved to another chapter in the published version) and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” (used in The Long Winter).

(from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of American English Poetry, 1765, some spelling of some words changed for easier reading)

In Scarlet towne, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin,
Made every youth cry, wel-awaye!
Her name was Barbara Allen.

All in the merre month of May,
When green buds they were swellin,
Yong Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay,
For love of Barbara Allen.

He sent his man unto her then,
To the town, where she was dwellin,
You must come to my master dear,
Giff your name be Barbara Allen.

For death is printed on his face,
And ore his heart is stealin,
Then haste away to comfort him,
O lovely Barbara Allen.

Though death be printed on his face,
And ore his heart is stealin
Yet little better shall he be
For bonny Barbara Allen.

So slowly, slowly she came up,
And slowly she came nigh him,
And all she said, when there she came,
Young man, I think you’re dying.

He turned his face unto her straight,
With deadly sorrow sighing;
Oh lovely maid, come pity me,
I’m on my death-bed lying.

If on your death-bed you do lie,
What needs the tale you are tellin;
I cannot keep you from your death,
Farewell, said Barbara Allen.

He turned his face unto the wall,
As deadly pangs he fell in:
Adieu! adieu! adieu to all,
Adieu to Barbara Allen.

As she was walking ore the fields,
She heard the bell a knellin:
And every stroke did seem to say,
Unworthy Barbara Allen. (continued next column)

She turned her body round about,
And spied the corps a coming:
Lay down, lay down the corpse, she said,
That I may look upon him.

With scornful eye she looked down,
Her cheek with laughter swellin
That all her friends cried out amaine
Unworthy Barbara Allen.

When he was dead, and laid in grave,
Her heart was struck with sorrow,
On mother, mother, make my bed,
For I shall die tomorrow.

Hard hearted creature him to slight,
Who loved me so dearly;
Oh that I had been more kind to him,
When he was live and near me!

She, on her death-bed as she lay
Begged to be buried by him:
And sore repented of the sday
That she did not deny him.

Farewell, she said, ye virgins all,
And shun the fault I fell in,
Henceforth take warning by the fall
Of cruel Barbara Allen.

(from By the Shores of Silver Lake)

In Scarlet town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’;
And every youth cried ‘Well-a-wa.’
Her name was Barbary Allen.

All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin’
Young Johnnie Grove on his death bed lay
For love of Barbary Allen.    


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Click on the above images to view a copy of undated sheet music of “Barbara Allen.”

This music is archived in the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, part of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music and focuses on popular American music from 1780-1960.    


“Barbary Allen” (LTP 8)
     “In Scarlet town where I was born…”