The Ballad of Barbara Allen

**Featured Image: Barbara Allen’s Cruelty by H. M. Brock (Cropped)

My maternal great-grandmother, Cora (McNeely) Goins, lived a good deal of her adult life in a coal camp, just down the road from Kentucky, in Westbourne, Tennessee. As the coal boom slowed and the company’s profits waned, the coal barons abandoned Westbourne, leaving the remaining residents to find alternate housing before the area was razed. So, the Goins family moved to surrounding regions. My mother was very close to her grandmother and she often brought my little brother and I to visit her.

I was eleven years old when Old Mammaw Goins passed on and consider myself very fortunate to have spent time with her. (Yes, that’s what some of us Appalachians call our great-grandparents – Old Mammaw, Old Pappaw. The word “Mammaw,” or “Mamaw,” is believed to be from the Scottish Lowlands and means “my mother.” Broken down further, “Ma” refers to a person’s mother, while “Maw” refers to another’s mother, thus, my mother’s mother. Old Mammaw would be the older mother of my mother’s mother.)1)Appalachian Magazine. “Mountain Lingo: Where Did “Ma-maw” and “Pa-paw” Come From?” Appalachian Magazine. NOv 30, 2017.

Though I do remember her, my memories are formed with childhood swatches that never formed into a cohesive pattern: I remember her voice sounded gritty and wise. And I loved to touch her because her skin was as soft as a bread bun. I remember when she and I sat outside eating Ritz crackers, enjoying one another’s company. I remember riding with my mother to take her on errands. I remember my mom and her sitting in lawn chairs on the front yard, talking and laughing. I remember her smile and her demeanor.

She was and remains so much to me. Her story – her perseverance, her resilience, her spunk – is stitched tightly within my own make up and carries me through just about anything. Whenever I’ve encountered tragedy or seemingly insurmountable obstacles, her face comes to my mind and I am comforted. She had immense internal strength and her presence – all four feet eleven inches and about 90 pounds – commanded respect.

I still hang onto my mother’s stories about her. In particular for this post, my mom told me Old Mammaw sang the old ballads, mostly “Barbara Allen.” Her mother sang it to her when she was a child in the late 1800s. She knew it by heart, which tells me she heard it quite often. I happened upon a few stanzas my mom copied of “Barbry Allen” (the title my Old Mammaw used), with notes along the margins of how my great-grandmother sang it. Finding it sparked a desire to share it.

Versions of “Barbara Allen” derive from Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, a great swath of which are found in the Appalachian Mountains. The popular belief is that the ballad came from Scotland. The title has several different spellings from “Barbara Allen” to “Barbara Allan,” “Barbry Allen” to “Bawbie Allen,” etc. The male character seems to switch between “Sweet William” and “Sir John Græme.” This narrative song is arguably the most popular ballad of all time.

The earliest written reference to “Barbara Allen” is in Samuel Pepys’s diary entry dated January 2, 1665/66:

. . . but above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure was I to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen” . . .

Other early references are found in England’s broadside ballads. For around four-hundred years, from the 1400s to the 1800s, various ballads were printed on broadsides using presses or printing presses, and peddled by street vendors, especially where crowds gathered. Dates for the broadside “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty, or, The Young Man’s Tragedy,” are speculative, ranging anywhere from 1675 to 1750. The University of Glasgow has a few broadsides of “Barbara Allan” as late as 1855.

Authors and folklorists have documented the ballad. Scottish writer and publisher, Allan Ramsay, who published the 1740 The Tea-table Miscellany: or, a Collection of Choice Songs, Scots and English lists the ballad as “Bonny Barbara Allan.” Oliver Goldsmith also references it in The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766. In chapter four, he writes:

These harmless people had several ways of being good company, while one played, the other would sing some soothing ballad, Johnny Armstrong’s last good night, or the cruelty of Barbara Allen.

Further, he is quoted as saying:

. . .the music of the finest singer is dissonance compared to when an old dairymaid sung me into tears with “Johnny Armstrong’s Last Goodnight” or “The Cruelty of Barbara Allen.”2)Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. “Barbara Allen/ Barbary Allen/ Barbary Ellen.” Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. n.d.

Written in 1812, Bishop Thomas Percy’s posthumous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets contains two variations of the ballad. The first (Roman Numeral V) is titled, “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty,” and the second (Roman Numeral VII) is “Sir John Grehme and Barbara Allan.”

Perhaps the most well-known ballad collector is American scholar and folklorist, Francis J. Child. Child realized the importance of recording the old ballads for posterity. His extensive volumes, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, were dedicated to collecting and preserving the “history of the words and themes”3)Francis J. Child Ballads: Francis J. Child Biography.” Mar 7, 1999. in old ballads. Instead of copying “ballads sung by local bards, Child built his collection from the study of printed sources,”4)Lankford Jr., Ronnie D. “Francis Child Artist Biography.” All Music. n.d. which, I’m pretty certain the aforementioned were used. “Barbara Allen” is listed at #84 in his selection, as “Bonny Barbara Allan.” He notes three variations – A, B, and C – and the differences are recognizable by the first line:

A. “It was in and about the Martinmas time . . .”
B. “In Scarlet Town, where I was bound . . .”
C. “It fell about the Lammas time . . .”

So, how is it that so many versions (some say over one hundred) of “Barbara Allen” exist? Ballads were passed down by oral tradition. A word was changed here, perhaps a sentence there. Some elements may have been added to express certain situations or quandaries. Plus, many of these narratives were (and still are) delivered as whimsical or even as political humor. If a person wanted to play a joke on someone, the joker simply replaced the name on the ballad to suit the recipient.

Regardless of dates, intent, or variations, “Barbara Allen” is a well-known ballad sung for over four-hundred years (at least). My Old Mammaw’s rendition, via my mom’s memory, is transcribed below. I like to think of her singing it to my mom on their many walks together, along paths where blackberries are plentiful, where country roses in bedraggled beauty greet them on both sides, where swaying grasses sing their windy ovations and cool moss grows soft and plush along the way; and they are both smiling and happy.

(How Cora McNeely Goins sang the ballad)

It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a-fallin’,
That Sir John Graeme in the West Country
Fell in love with Barbry Allen.

He sent his man down through the town
To the place where she was dwellin’:
“O haste and come to my master dear,
If ye be Barbry Allen.”

O slowly, slowly rose she up,
To the place where he was lyin’,
And when she drew the curtain by:
“Young mand, I think you’re dyin’.”

“O it’s I’m sick and very, very sick,
And ’tis all for Barbry Allan.”
“O the better for me ye shall never be,
Though your heart’s blood were a-spillin’.”

“Don’t you recall, young man,” said she
“When ye the cups were fillin’,
That ye made the toasts go round and round,
And slighted Barbry Allan?”

He turned his face unto the wall,
And death with him was dealin’:
“Farewell, farewell, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbry Allan.”

And slowly, slowly, rose she up.
And slowly, slowly, left him:
And sighing said she could not stay,
Since death of life had taken from him.

She had not gone a mile but two
When she heard the dead-bell knellin’,
And every stroke that the dead-bell made
It cried “Woe to Barbry Allan!”

“O Mother, Mother, make my bed,
O make it soft and narrow:
Since my love died for me today,
I’ll die for him a’morrow.”

Author Unknown

I chose what I thought were the closest Appalachian renditions of “Barbara Allen.” Check them out below (note the lyric variations):


1 Appalachian Magazine. “Mountain Lingo: Where Did “Ma-maw” and “Pa-paw” Come From?” Appalachian Magazine. NOv 30, 2017.
2 Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. “Barbara Allen/ Barbary Allen/ Barbary Ellen.” Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. n.d.
3 Francis J. Child Ballads: Francis J. Child Biography.” Mar 7, 1999.
4 Lankford Jr., Ronnie D. “Francis Child Artist Biography.” All Music. n.d.


  1. This is marvelous, Delonda. I had heard Barbara Allen (Barbry Ellen) as a dulcimer tune, but was unaware of all this rich history attached to it. Also, the tribute to your Mammaw is quite moving (e.g.–“skin soft as a bread bun”; “eating Ritz crackers” [you evoked memories of my own dear Mimi!]). Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Annie! I’m so glad it brought you happiness and good memories. It was a joy to write, to place myself back in time with all the senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, etc. I really believe our foremothers are strong, stellar examples to fondly remember and share with following generations.

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