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Barb’ry Ellen
(Child 84; Roud 54)
Tom Lenihan
Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay
Recorded 1977

Carroll Mackenzie Collection


Tom Lenihan

In Dublin town I was brought up
As Limerick being my dwelling;
I fell in love with a pretty girl,
Her name was Barb’ry Ellen.

Her name was Barb’ry Ellen.
I fell in love with a pretty girl,
Her name was Barb’ry Ellen.

For twelve long months I courted her,
Until I thought I’d get her.
But wait a while and you will hear,
How maidens’ minds do alter.

How maidens’ minds do alter.
But wait a while and you will hear,
How maidens’ minds do alter.

I fell sick and very bad,
I sent for her to cure me.
The words she said, when e’er she came:
‘I feel, young man, you’re dying.

I feel, young man, you’re dying.’
The words she said, when e’er she came:
‘I feel, young man, you’re dying.’

‘Dying, dear, how can that be?
One kiss from you will cure me.’
‘One kiss from me, you’ll never get
If your very heart was breaking.

If your very heart was breaking.
One kiss from me, you’ll never get,
If your very heart was breaking.

Do you remember Saturday night,
When we were in the alehouse?
You drank ale with all fair maids,
And slighted Barb’ry Ellen.

And slighted Barb’ry Ellen.
You drank ale with all fair maids,
And slighted Barb’ry Ellen.’

‘I do remember Saturday night,
When we were in the alehouse.
I drank ale with all fair maids,
As a toast to Barb’ry Ellen.

As a toast to Barb’ry Ellen.
I drank ale with all fair maids,
As a toast to Barb’ry Ellen.’

As she was in her father’s lawn,
She saw a corpse coming.
‘Lay down, lay down my true love’s corpse
Until I gaze upon him.

Until I gaze upon him.
Lay down, lay down my true love’s corpse
Until I gaze upon him.’

The more she gazed the more she sobbed,
The more she scorned at him
Until all her friends cried out in shame,
‘False-hearted Barb’ry Ellen.

False-hearted Barb’ry Ellen.
Until all her friends cried out in shame,
False-hearted Barb’ry Ellen.’

‘Go home, dear mother, make my bed down,
Oh, make it soft and narrow,
A young man died for me last night,
I’ll die for him tomorrow.

I will die for him tomorrow.
A young man died for me last night,
I’ll die for him tomorrow.’

Now these couple are dead and gone,
And in one grave together.
One of them died in pure true love,
And the other in grief and sorrow.

And the other in grief and sorrow.
One of them died in pure true love,
And the other in grief and sorrow.


“Probably the most widespread of all the ballads, this is known throughout the English-speaking world. Samuel Pepys, in his diary entry for 2nd January 1666 wrote,

'In perfect pleasure I was to hear her' (Mrs Knipp, an actress) 'sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.'

Oliver Goldsmith heard it sung by a dairymaid, Peggy Golden, at Lissoy, near Ballymahon, Co. Westmeath, and wrote in 1765:

'The music of the finest singer is dissonance to what I felt when an old dairymaid sung me into tears with "Johnny Armstrong’s Last Goodnight" or "The Cruelty Of Barbara Allen".'

It was first published in Allan Ramsay’s "Tea-Table Miscellany" and has continued to make an appearance in folk song collections since. In William Stenhouse’s notes to the variant in The Scots Musical Museum, he wrote:

'It has been a favourite ballad at every country fire-side in Scotland, time out of memory……… A learned correspondent informs me that he remembers having heard the ballad frequently sung in Dumfriesshire, where, it was said, the catastrophe took place…'

Bronson gives around two hundred versions, and ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger edited an LP record containing thirty American recordings. The enduring popularity of the ballad among country singers and a revealing insight into how it was viewed by them, was amply illustrated in an interview with American traditional singer Jean Ritchie who spoke about her work collecting folk songs in Ireland, Scotland and England in the early nineteen fifties. She says:

'I used the song Barbara Allen as a collecting tool because everybody knew it. When I would ask people to sing me some of their old songs they would sometimes sing Does Your Mother Come from Ireland, or something about shamrocks. But if I asked if they knew Barbara Allen, immediately they knew exactly what kind of song I was talking about and they would bring out beautiful old things that matched mine; and were variants of the songs that I knew in Kentucky. It was like coming home'."

Reference:
Tea Table Miscellany, Allan Ramsay (ed). 1824.
Scots Musical Museum (vol 4), James Johnson, Notes by William Stenhouse 1787-1792.
The Traditional Tunes of The Child Ballads, B.H.Bronson 1959-1972.
Rediscovering The Richie Tradition, John Kelly interview, Irish Times.
Versions & Variants of Barbara Allen, Charles Seeger (ed), Library of Congress.
Jim Carroll


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