“Bonny Barbara Allan”

Alternate titles: “Barbara Ellen”; “Barbary Allen”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1740 (Tea-Table Miscellany; mentioned by Pepys in 1666)
Keywords: love hardheartedness death flowers
Found in: Britain(Scotland(Aber,Bord,Hebr),England(All)) US(All) Canada(Mar,Newf,West) Ireland


A knight lies dying for love of Barbara Allan. His servant summons her, but she scorns him. As she returns home, she hears the death-bell, repents, and in turn dies. Buried close together, a briar grows from her grave, a rose from his; they entwine


Ed Cray makes the interesting note that, in a study he did with Charles Seeger, he found four basic versions of the text of this song (which can be initially sorted by their first lines), and Seeger found four basic tune families. But the text groupings and tune groupings do not overlap.

Bronson, too, finds four tune families (Group A of 39 tunes, B of 11, C of 87, and D of 54, plus a handful of odds and ends). Not all of Bronson's texts can be proved to be Barbara Allen (e.g. #1 could come from several ballads), but spot checks of Bronson seem to support at least partly Cray's thesis. While many versions could not be identified based solely on first lines, I found the following:

Of the 39 texts in Bronson's "A" group, 12 have the opening "In Scarlet Town (Reading Town, London Town, Scotland) where I was born," 7 start with "All in the merry month of May (June)," and 3 open with "So early, early in the Spring."

Of the texts in the "B" group, 4 begin "It was about the Martinmas time," two are "Merry month of May," and one is "Scarlet Town."

In the huge "C" group, 34 versions were "Merry month," 20 were "Scarlet Town," 2 were "Martinmas," and 4 were "So early."

In the "D" group, 27 were "Merry Month," 9 were "Scarlet Town," and 2 were "So early."

Based on this, we might speculate that:

1. The original text was "All in the merry month of May" (70 instances) and that the tune was, if anything, Bronson's "C" group. This group is described as pentatonic, though the timing varies.

2. "Scarlet Town" goes with the "A" group, and might be next in age, since the first line is second to "Merry month" in popularity (42 instances). Bronson considers this tune to be primarily English, and perhaps somewhat related to the "C" tune.

3. "Martinmas" is originally (and still primarily) associated with the "B" group. Bronson lists this group as primarily Scottish.

4. "So Early," might seem, by elimination, to go with the "D" group. But this group is entirely American, and the tune (according to Bronson) is related to "Boyne Water," so this seems unlikely. Perhaps "D" has no special text associated with it.

But this is all very tentative (and based on only a few minutes' work on my part); if studies of classical texts teach us anything, it's that variants are to be weighed and not counted!

Phillips Barry speculates that this is based on the lives of Barbara Villiers and King Charles II. This is characteristic of Barry: Clever but completely unconvincing. - RBW

The name "Barbara," cognate with "barbarian," means "foreigner" [technically, someone who doesn't speak Greek - RBW]; Martin Carthy has conjectured that the original story involved a Gypsy or North African woman, and that racial prejudice explains why William slights her, and why she is so cold to him as a result. - PJS

If we're going for the way-far-out, Peter Underwood's _Gazeteer of British, Scottish & Irish Ghosts_, pp. 343-344, has a tale which sounds amazingly like this one: Edmund Graeme (a name not far from that of one of the name for Barbara's swain) fell in love with an unnamed girl. They were engaged, but she betrayed his trust. He died for love. She repented within moments of his death. She asked to be buried (alive, in Underwood's version) with him. His story is that her ghost haunts the site.

Of course, all this would be much better for documentation. And dates; it might well be more recent than Barbara's story.

There is one element in the song which does have a strong foreign element: The rose-and-briar ending. This, of course, is not unique to this song, though it's most strongly associated with Barbara and her love. But the rose-and-briar-and-lover's-knot theme has been found as far away as Hungary (Romania?); Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 228, prints a Transylvanian version, "Kadar Kata," "Katie Kadar," with a loose English translation. In that version, the mother has drowned the girl, and the boy drowns himself where he finds her ghost. In that version, he is the rose, she the briar -- and the mother tears them out of the ground. The rose then curses his mother. (Could this be the origin of some sort of legend of the undead?)

The story also has roots in Ireland. For a version of the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, see Padraic Colum, editor, ?A Treasury of Irish Folklore_, revised edition, 1954, 1967 (I use the 1992 Wings Books edition), pp. 73-83; also the much shorter summary in Peter Beresford Ellis's _A Dictionary of Irish Mythology_, Oxford, 1991, pp. 80-81. Deirdre, it was foretold at her birth, would grow up to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, but also to cause great grief to the one who married her and to his nation. Although Conor cared for the child, promising to wed her himself (and hence prevent any sorrow for anyone who mattered), she was not interested in an old man (more to the point, perhaps, she may have felt the normal aversion children feel for those they grow up with; for background, see the notes to "Babylon, or, The Bonnie Banks o Fordie [Child 14]"). She instead fell in love with Naisi, and though strenuous efforts were made to keep them apart, he was killed and she killed herself. They slept side by side, and a tree grew from each, and the trees intertwined.

The intertwining of branches is also found in the romance of Tristan and Iseult.

Cambiaire claims there is a Spanish romance parallel to "Barbara Allen." Unfortunately he does not name it. Still, it seems clear that the rose-and-briar-intertwining theme is widespread at least across Europe. Cultural cross-fertilization, independent invention, or does this go back all the way to Indo-European? Perhaps there is a dissertation in there somewhere. - RBW

Broadside Murray Mu23-y1:138, "Barbara Allan the Cruel," ends as a parody in which Barbara "gets another spark" after Johnny dies and, when she eventually dies," she is buried beside him "For she wished to be his bride in death, Though in life she couldn't abide 'un." - BS

Cross references




  1. Child 84, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (3 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #79}
  2. Bronson 84, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (198 versions+2 in addenda)
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 195-200, "Barbara Allen" (3 texts plus 1 fragment, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #15, #188}
  4. Percy/Wheatley III, pp. 128-130, "Barbara Allen's Cruelty"; pp. 133-135, "Sir John Grehme and Barbara Allen" (2 texts)
  5. Belden, pp. 60-65, "Barbara Allen" (1 full text+3 fragments, 4 tunes, plus references to 11 other versions) {G=Bronson's #55, K=#159, M=#158, N=#181}
  6. Randolph 21, "Barbara Allen" (11 texts plus 4 fragments, 6 tunes) {A=Bronson's #114, B=#135, E=#172, J=#163, M=#119, N=#162}
  7. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 41-44, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 21M) {Bronson's #119}
  8. Eddy 16, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (4 texts plus 2 fragments (the fragments might be any rose-and-briar song); 4 tunes) {Bronson's #191, #53, #22, #160}
  9. Gardner/Chickering 8, "Barbara Allen" (1 text plus an excerpt and mention of 1 more; 1 tune) {Bronson's #187}
  10. Flanders/Olney, pp. 197-200, "Mary Alling" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Flanders-Ancient2, pp. 246-292, "Barbara Allen" (16 texts plus 9 fragments, 13 tunes -- some of the items rather oddly related, e.g. H1, H2, H3 are said to derive from the same informant but the melodies of H2 and H3 differ)
  12. Linscott, pp. 163-164, "Barb'ry Ellen or Barbara Allen" (1 short text, 1 tune)
  13. Davis-Ballads 24, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (28 texts plus 4 fragments, 12 tunes, all entitled "Barbara Allen"; 56? more versions mentioned in Appendix A) {Bronson's #89, #101, #102, #189, #169, #75, #182, [#s, unprinted], [#t, unprinted], #141, #171, #184}
  14. Davis-More 25, pp. 182-198, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (7 texts plus a fragment, 8 tunes)
  15. BrownII 27, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (9 texts plus 10 excerpts and citations of 12 more)
  16. Chappell-FSRA 13, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (1 short text)
  17. Hudson 15, pp. 95-107, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (6 texts plus 7 excerpts and mention of 3 more)
  18. Fuson, pp. 47-48, "Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  19. Cambiaire, pp. 66-68, "Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  20. MHenry-Appalachians, p. 248, "Barbara Ellen" (1 fragment)
  21. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 83-96, collectively titled "Bonny Barbara Allen"; individual versions are "The Ballet of Barbara Allan," "Barbry Ellen," "Barbara Allen," (no title), "Barbare Allen," (no title), "Barbara Ellen," "Barbara Ellen," "Barbarie Allen" (9 texts; 5 tunes on pp. 386-388) {Bronson's #183, #107, #180, #168, #118}
  22. Scarborough-NegroFS, pp. 59-60, (no title; the song uses the name "Bob-ree Allin") (1 text)
  23. Brewster 15, "Barbara Allen" (12 texts plus a fragment and mention of 1 more, 1 tune) {Bronson's #150}
  24. Creighton/Senior, pp. 49-58, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (6 texts plus 1 fragment, 4 tunes) {Bronson's #85, #36, #37, #38}
  25. Creighton-Maritime, pp. 13-14, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (1 text, 1 tune)
  26. Greenleaf/Mansfield 12, "Barbree Ellen" (1 text)
  27. Peacock, pp. 649-661, "Barbara Allen" (4 texts, 6 tunes)
  28. Mackenzie 9, "Barbara Allan" (1 text); "Barbara Ellan" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #18}
  29. Leach, pp. 277-280, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (3 texts)
  30. Wyman-Brockway I, p. 1, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #151}
  31. Friedman, p. 88, "Barbara Allen" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  32. OBB 158, "Barbara Allen's Cruelty" (1 text)
  33. Warner 40, "Barbara Allen"; 187, "Barbara Allen" (2 texts, 2 tunes; the first tune is in 5/4 and seems to be the only American instance of this metre, commonly found in British tunes in Bronson's "A" group)
  34. PBB 59, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  35. McNeil-SFB1, pp. 102-105, "Barb'ry Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  36. SharpAp 24 "Barbara Allen" (7 texts plus 6 fragments, 16 tunes){Bronson's #88, #116, #136, #76, #176, #152, #178, #184, #106, #121, #110, #48, #49, #78, #111, #137}
  37. Sharp-100E 7, "Barbara Ellen" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #1}
  38. Niles 36, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  39. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 19, "Barbara Ellen" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #49}
  40. Sandburg, p. 57, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #35}
  41. Scott-BoA, pp. 7-8, "Bawbee Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  42. Copper-SoBreeze, pp. 278-279, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  43. Lomax-FSNA 89, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune, probably composite as no source it listed)
  44. Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 169-171," [Barbry Ellen]" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #142}
  45. Ritchie-Southern, p. 73, "Barbry Ellen" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #142}
  46. Ord, pp. 476-477, "Barbara Allan" (1 text)
  47. Botkin-AmFolklr, pp. 820-822, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  48. TBB 12, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (1 text)
  49. SHenry H236, pp. 375-376, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  50. Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan 9, "Barb'ry Ellen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  51. MacSeegTrav 11, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  52. Gilbert, pp. 25-26, "Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  53. HarvClass-EP1, pp. 68-69, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  54. Abrahams/Foss, p. 143, "(Barbara Allen)" (1 tune, partial text)
  55. LPound-ABS, 3, pp. 7-9, "Barbery Allen"; p. 10, "Barbara Allen" (2 texts)
  56. JHCox 16, "Bonny Barbara Allen" (9 texts plus mention of 3 more; 2 tunes) {Bronson's #138, #91}
  57. Darling-NAS, pp. 50-54, "Barbara Allen"; "Barbro Allen" (2 texts)
  58. PSeeger-AFB, p. 79, "Barbara Allen" (1 text, 1 tune)
  59. Silber-FSWB, p. 179 "Barbara Allen" (1 text)
  60. BBI, ZN1459, "In Scarlet Town where I was bound"
  62. ADDITIONAL: Fred W. Allsopp, Folklore of Romantic Arkansas, Volume II (1931), pp. 212-213, "(Barbara Allen)" (1 text)
  63. Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #368, "Bonny Barbara Allan" (1 text)
  64. Roud #54
  65. BI, C084