(Child Ballad #84) (trad.)

Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
Audio files are DELIBERATELY encoded "low-fi" to enable faster streaming and are intended as "illustrations" and "appetizers" only.
Official and "hi-fi" recordings can (and should) be purchased at your local record dealer or through a number of web-based companies, like CDNow.

The story is a simple one. In "Scarlet Town," a young man named Sweet William lies on his death bed and calls for Barbara Allen. He asks for her love; she coldly informs him that he is dying. There is some discussion over who slighted whom. She leaves and is smitten by remorse when she hears "the death bell knelling." She asks her father to dig her grave. This done, she "will die for him tomorrow," and buried next to Sweet William in the old churchyard, a rose that blossoms from his heart, and a briar that springs from hers, "grew and grew... till they twined a true love's knot."

Sung in hundreds of variants, the restraint of each stanza is a study in economy, with love's infectious malady setting a fateful trap from which neither William nor Barbara can escape. Samuel Pepys took notice of the timelessness of the song on January 2, 1666, when he wrote in his diary:

"In perfect pleasure I was to hear her [Mrs. Knipp, an actress] sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen."
...Beyond its literary qualities, the song... must have had qualities that kept it in popular currency. The stanzaic repetition of Barbara Allen's name acts as what modern songwriters call a "hook," and the internal rhymes -- dwelling, swelling, knelling -- further attract the song into memory.

Lenny Kaye, liner notes for "O Love Is Teasin'" (Elektra 9 60402-1-U, 1985).

Lyrics as performed by Bob Dylan on the 2nd Gaslight Tape, late 1962.
Transcribed by Manfred Helfert.

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a fair maid dwellin.'
Had a name was known both far and near,
An' her name was Barb'ry Allen.

'Twas in the merry month of May,
Green buds they were swellin',
Poor William on his death-bed lay,
For the love of Barb'ry Allen.

He sent his man down to town
To the place that she was dwellin'
Sayin', "Master bids your company,
If your name is Barb'ry Allen."

Oh slowly, slowly she got up
To the place where he was lyin',
And when she pulled the curtain back,
Said, "Young man, I b'lieve you're dying!"

"Oh yes, oh yes, I'm very sick
And I shall never get better
Unless I have the love of one,
The love of Bar'bry Allen."

"Don't you remember not long ago,
The day down in the tavern?
You toasted all the ladies there,
But you slighted Barb'ry Allen."

"Oh yes, oh yes, I remember well
That day down in the tavern.
I toasted all the ladies there,
But I gave my heart to Barb'ry Allen."

She looked to the East, she looked to the West,
She saw his pale corpse a-comin',
Cryin', "Put him down and leave him there
So I might gaze upon him."

The more she gazed, the more she mourned,
Until she burst out cryin';
Sayin', "I beg you come and take him away,
For my heart now too is dyin'!"

"Oh, father, father, come dig my grave,
Dig it wide an' narrow.
Poor William died for me today;
I'll die for him tomorrow."

They buried him in the old churchyard,
They buried her beside him,
And from his heart grew a red, red rose,
And from her heart a briar.

They grew, they grew so awful high
Till they could grow no higher,
An' 'twas there they tied a lover's knot,
The red rose and the briar.

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a maid a-dwellin.'
Had a name was known both far and near,
An' her name was Barb'ry Allen.

To Lyrics Page
To Table of Contents
To Starting Page