The Ballad of Barbara Allen

lute A ballad is a song which tells a story, or narrative. Ballads were the news stories of their day. With most of the population illiterate, stories and news were transmitted orally. The rhyme of the song or poem made it easier to remember the details of the story.

While the ballad probably had one author, each singer of the ballad would have learned it orally and might change both the lyrics and the tune, so today there are many versions of the same ballad. If you search on the net you will find this is certainly true for ‘Barbara Allen’ (92 versions have been counted).

The subject of most ballads is a tragic incident, for example a murder or an accidental death, and as this was the age of superstition, there are often supernatural elements like ghosts and conniving spirits. Very little information is given about the characters; the narrative is impersonal and the storyteller, or narrator, does not express his feelings. The ballad most often has four lines with simple repeating rhymes, often with a refrain (a group of lines that are repeated throughout). The rhyme scheme is typically abab or abcb.


The Ballad of Barbara Allen

In Scarlet town where I was born

There was a fair maid dwellin'

Made every youth cry Well-a-day

Her name was Barb'ra Allen

All in the merry month of May

When green buds they were swellin,

Young Willie Grove on his death-bed lay,

For love of Barb'ra Allen.


He sent his servant to her door

To the town where she was dwelln',

Haste ye come, to my master's call

If your name be Barb'ra Allen.


So slowly, slowly got she up

And slowly she drew nigh him,

And all she said, when there she came

'Young man I think you're dying!'


He turned his face unto the wall

And death was drawing nigh him

Good bye, Good bye to dear friends all.

Be kind to Barb'ra Allen.


When he was dead and laid in grave,

She heard the death bell knelling.

And every note, did seem to say

Oh, cruel Barb'ra Alllen.


The more it tolled the more she grieved

She bursted out a crying,

Oh pick me up and carry me home

I feel that I am dying


'Oh mother, mother, make my bed

Make it soft and narrow.

Sweet William died, for love of me,

And I shall die of sorrow.


They buried her in the old churchyard

Sweet William's grave was nigh hers.

And from his grave grew a red, red rose

From hers a cruel briar




Understanding the ballad

  1. What power did Barbara Allen hold over young men?
  2. Why was Willie Grove dying?
  3. What did Barbara Allen do when she was asked to come to the young man's bedside?
  4. What was Willie's last wish?
  5. What does Barbara eventually realize?
  6. Where was Barbara Allen buried?
  7. What grows from Willie Grove's grave? What grew from Barbara Allen's grave?


Talk about it

  1. What is the significance of the plants that grow in the final stanza?
  2. You could say that this is a poem about the tragedy of unrequited love. Who is to blame? Should Barbara Allen feel guilty? Why do you think she feels guilty?
  3. If we look ahead to five hundred years from now, when people listen to the songs that we listen to today, what do you think they will learn and think about us? Choose one or two songs as your point of departure. 


Write about it

  1. How much of the story does the ballad actually tell? Write a descriptive paragraph that tells in prose what the ballad tells us.
  2. Write a modern news story about this incident where you fill in the missing details. Use your imagination.
  3. Share your newspaper article with a classmate. Write a letter to the editor of the newspaper reacting to the events that you read about in your partner's article. Here is the chance to give personal feelings.


Find a favourite

There are many renditions of this ballad on the net. Listen to a few of them with a classmate and find out which is your favourite.