Ever since I bought a five CD compilation set of Irish folk music in 1999, I have loved the themes, stories and passion that is alive in this music. From the revival recordings of Ewan MacColl , the field recordings of Diane Hamilton and Catherine Wright to the more recent beautifully sung renditions by Kate Rusby , I am proud that humanity has chosen to maintain this tradition.
I am not a fan of popular music, I feel that unless a tune or song has managed to survive 100 or 200 years of competition, then it will probably (and appropriately) fade from history. If a succession of generations finds enough worth in a song to repeat it to their children and them to their children’s children, then it must hold some essence of the human condition that warrants further study.
This brings me to the subject of this entry, Barbara Allen. Variously called Barbarous Ellen, Barbara Allen’s Cruelty or the Young-man’s Tragedy, this song tells of a jilted lover who, on his death, causes the death of said lover from guilt. In some versions it is not even clear that the affection was ever requited. The ending of most versions of the song is notable for inclusion of the motif of a rose and briar joining over graves in the churchyard.
This article will not make much sense unless you are familiar with the song, you can listen to my YouTube version here, or read various versions of the tune here.
There are many discussion threads on mudcat.org and a good summary of the earliest known performances and publications of the song provided on mainlynorfolk.info. The song has its earliest reported performance in 1666 and some indicate that there are close to 200 different variations spread across England, Scotland, Ireland and America.
So why do I hate this song? My main frustration is not that it lacks the key components of a good ballad, such as a murder or two, a returned lover or a dysfunctional love triangle. I am infuriated that as a disparate set of cultures across over 350 years, we have chosen to immortalise this particular piece of misogynist, spiteful, dribble.
While in some versions of the song, the particulars of Barbara’s rejection of the protagonist are fleshed out a little, they never amount to anything warranting a death wish. We can set aside the suggestion that this song may have been a piece of political satire targeting Charles II because by the 1800’s it would have lost any relevance in this respect. The song was perpetuated and re-invented based on its non-satirical merits alone.
Remember that whoever wrote the song was neither of the protagonists, as both are dead by its conclusion. We could surmise then that the author, or at least the audience psyche that identifies with the song, is a jilted male. Many a male has been spurned by a prospective lover, however, the ideology put forward in this song is that the man who dies of un-fulfilled desire should wish a swift death upon the object of his affection.
This is narrow-minded, childish misogyny. The idea that any girl who rejects a suitor should die of guilt is absurd. Yet here we have an example of an author and many millions of enamoured audience members nodding in agreement over three centuries.
The fact that this song is one of the most popular collected by Francis Child is a sad indictment on humanity. I can only assume that it is a mostly male audience that is to blame for this. There are so many other songs about chivalry, constancy and respect that warrant our praise. In the more recent example of ‘On Raglan Road ’ by Patrick Kavanagh we even have a good example describing how to look back with bittersweet reverence on failed romantic engagements.
I think this song is due for a 2016 re-write by a new generation of folk song authors. Maybe Barbara can go on to wed a man who respects her decisions and our spiteful misogynist will see the error of his ways and find someone to court who appreciates his improved character?