Michaeline: For the Love of Barbara Allen

Pretty young lady with a check or plaid dress.

An autumn version of Barbara Allen/Barbara Allan. (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a lot of different variations of the old Scottish/English/Appalachian song about Barbara Allen, but I was first exposed to the lyrics through a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (0:14) Porky Pig was dressed Friar Tuck, and strolled around singing about the merry month of May.

It was a great tune, and memorable lyrics. “A young man on his deathbed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.” (“Robin Hood Daffy,” 1958.) 

Later in high school or college, we sang a different version in choir. The lyrics could be sung to Porky’s melody, though, so I’d switch between the two in the shower, depending on if I wanted to be light and lovely, or dark and mournful.

This is the way I remember the choir version:

“’Twas in the merry month of May
When all green buds were swelling,
A young man on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.

“He sent a servant to the town,
He sent him to her dwelling
‘My master’s sick and he sends for you,
If you are Barbara Allen.

“Oh hooly, hooly, rose she up
And took her to his dwelling.
And all she said when she got there
Was, ‘My true love, you’re dying.’

(Missing in my memory – she leaves, and goes home. In the distance a deathbell rang and she realizes he’s dead.)

“’Oh, Mother come, and make my bed.
Oh, make it soft and narrow.
For my true love has died today.
And I shall die tomorrow.’”

In other versions, there’s more information as to why Barbara Allen leaves. In most versions, the young man complimented all the ladies in a tavern or at a party, and left out Barbara Allen. In this version by Bob Dylan,  the young man even says, “I gave a toast to all the ladies there, but I gave my heart to Barbara Allen.” (2:04) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSPrCn9EPsI

To me, the subtext is that Barbara doesn’t believe the young man is that much into her, and also she can’t believe he’s dying of a broken heart. For some reason, he’s trying to trick her. She goes home, thinking that she’ll see him again. Yet, she loves him and in all versions, she anticipates dying – or actually dies – when she learns of his death.

In many versions, they are buried together, and a rose springs from one heart, and a briar from the other, and form a love knot over their graves.

The Eight Ladies and other people from Romancelandia would recognize this as the Stupid Misunderstanding trope. If only the two people had talked honestly with each other, nobody would have had to die. But also, we wouldn’t have the song.

On the third hand, people lie when they are in relationships. It could be the sad case that Barbara has more grievances against her lover than just being slighted during a toast, and/or he’s too sick on his deathbed to defend himself.

I think if Barbara Allen wrote into r/relationships on Reddit, they’d tell her to dump him. If she can’t trust him when it looks like he’s on his deathbed, he’s probably Not The One.

And our young man? Jemmy, or John Graeme or Sweet William? If he wrote into Reddit for advice? They’d probably tell him to see a doctor, hit the gym and look for a new girlfriend. There’s a fundamental lack of communication there that neither one is willing to address, and it would be better to move on.

But maybe it’s neither of their faults. Maybe some sweet troubadour witnessed an outbreak of the plague. He sees the young man die after a visit from the young lady, then the young lady dies, and our wandering minstrel’s overactive imagination filled in all the blank spaces and voila! A story for the ages.

Anyway, we still have half of May. It’s against the Center for Disease Control’s advice to go strolling in the park without a mask, but we can use our imaginations to take a trip, and maybe surprise ourselves with a pair of roguish eyes . . . in the merry, merry month of May.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: For the Love of Barbara Allen

  1. It’s always interesting with these old, old songs, how many different versions and interpretations exist.

    My family is Appalachian and although I adored my mother, who died when I was 20, she was a product of the honor culture that underpins that mountain society. Forgiving people, even for minor slights, was a sign of weakness.

    In the version I grew up with, Barbara visits William’s bedside and says, without a trace of pity, “Young man, I think you’re dying.”

    But she loves him, so his loss makes her own life meaningless and she dies.

    And in our version they weren’t buried together–“They buried William in the old church yard, and Barbara in the new one,” so their separate rose bushes must work very hard to reach each other and form that true lovers’ knot.

    And I’m evidently a second-generation product of that culture because I find that story of tragedy and stubbornness really satisfying!

    • Oh, that’s really interesting! I learned Barbara Allen from TV and from school, as I said. But I think we all know at least one person who has that stubbornness — they’d cut their nose off if it’d spite the face sort of thing.

      There’s such a situational aspect here. Barbara may be mad at William, but William isn’t exactly apologizing, either, at least not in the versions I’ve seen. It’s all, “Come here, look at me, I’m dying because you won’t show me love.” And also, “I gave you my heart, darling. Why do you need all that toasting and stuff, as well?”

      I would love to hear the version you grew up with one day!

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