Your Cart

The Barbara Allen Song

If you’ve read my novel Remembrance Man about the cholera epidemic in 1832, you will remember young Emily singing the Barbara Allen song to her boyfriend Paolo. The song was mentioned in a diary of Samuel Pepys in 1666. It is a traditional Scottish ballad and is by far the most widely collected song in the English language with hundreds of versions sung over the years.


The other day I again came across this sad love story in a classic interpretation by Joan Baez:


Most of us don’t remember the great pandemics of the past and how awful they were. The Great Plague of 1665 and 1348 decimated the populations of numerous European nations. The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 was called the ‘blue death’ and it killed some 3,000 people during the summer of 1832 in Quebec City alone. The population at the time was only about 20,000 people so 15% of the population fell victim to cholera in a very short period from June to September. A lot of them were immigrants from Europe arriving by the boatload (50,000 people arrived in the city during that summer). Imagine the fear and the housing chaos as people sought refuge from the epidemic on the beaches and hills along the St. Lawrence River.


I was moved by this song as I am sure you will be too. Imagine two young people cut down by the ‘black death’ in the 17th century or by some other awful scourge. Here are the lyrics:


“Twas in the merry month of May

When green buds all were swelling,

Sweet William on his death bed lay

For love of Barbara Allen.


He sent his servant to the town

To the place where she was dwelling,

Saying you must come, to my master dear

If your name be Barbara Allen.


So slowly, slowly she got up

And slowly she drew nigh him,

And the only words to him did say

Young man I think you're dying.


He turned his face unto the wall

And death was in him welling,

Goodbye, goodbye, to my friends all

Be good to Barbara Allen.


When he was dead and laid in grave

She heard the death bells knelling

And every stroke to her did say

Hard hearted Barbara Allen.


Oh mother, oh mother, go dig my grave

Make it both long and narrow,

Sweet William died of love for me

And I will die of sorrow.


And father, oh father, go dig my grave

Make it both long and narrow,

Sweet William died on yesterday

And I will die tomorrow.


Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard

Sweet William was buried beside her,

Out of sweet William's heart, there grew a rose

Out of Barbara Allen's a briar.


They grew and grew in the old churchyard

Till they could grow no higher

At the end they formed, a true lover's knot

And the rose grew round the briar.”