Bob Dylan: Barbara Allen (traditional)

bob dylan barbara allen

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a fair maid dwellin.’
And her name was known both far and near,
And her name was Barb’ry Allen.

‘Twas in the merry month of May,
Green buds they were swellin’,
Poor William on his death-bed lay,
For the love of Barb’ry Allen.

…. And, you know, then the folk music, which I’d heard somewhat to a degree. I knew people that sung Barbara Allen and stuff like that. And I listened to all that music.
~Bob Dylan (to Nat Hentoff – Autumn 1965)


Written by Traditional
Published 17th century (earliest known)
Language English
Form Broadside ballad and folksong

Barbara Allen” (Child 84, Roud 54) is a traditional ballad originating in England and Scotland, which immigrants introduced to theUnited States, where it became a popular folk song. Roud and Bishop described it as, “…far and away the most widely collected song in the English language — equally popular in England, Scotland and Ireland, and with hundreds of versions collected over the years in North America.”

The story is a simple one. In “Scarlet Town,” a young man named Sweet William lies on his death bed and calls for Barbara Allen. He asks for her love; she coldly informs him that he is dying. There is some discussion over who slighted whom. She leaves and is smitten by remorse when she hears “the death bell knelling.” She asks her father to dig her grave. This done, she “will die for him tomorrow,” and buried next to Sweet William in the old churchyard, a rose that blossoms from his heart, and a briar that springs from hers, “grew and grew… till they twined a true love’s knot.”
~Lenny Kaye, liner notes for “O Love Is Teasin'” (Elektra 9 60402-1-U, 1985).

He sent his man down to town
To the place that she was dwellin’
Sayin’, “Master bids your company,
If your name is Barb’ry Allen.”

Oh slowly, slowly she got up
To the place where he was lyin’,
And when she pulled the curtain back,
Said, “Young man, I b’lieve you’re dying!”

Other notable versions

Joan Baez:

Pete Seeger:

Art Garfunkel (1973):

Johnny Cash rewrote the song -> “The Ballad of Barbara” – here the 1973 versions:

“Oh yes, oh yes, I’m very sick
And I shall never get better
Unless I have the love of one,
The love of Bar’bry Allen.”

“Don’t you remember not long ago,
The day down in the tavern?
You toasted all the ladies there,
But you slighted Barb’ry Allen.”

“Oh yes, oh yes, I remember well
That day down in the tavern.
I toasted all the ladies there,
But I gave my heart to Barb’ry Allen.”

Bob Dylan

Dylan, who actually pronounces the name Barb’ry Allen (this is common in many of the
traditional versions), performed this song in the Greenwich Village folk clubs during the
early 1960s. One rendition, performed at the Gaslight Café in October 1962, was captured
on tape and is in circulation among collectors. Dylan revisited this song in 1981 when he
surprised British audiences with an electric rendition. ‘Barbara Allen’ returned to Dylan’s
live sets again in 1988 and would continue to appear sporadically (fifty-seven times) until
1991. In these later readings Dylan tends to deliver the song as an edgy drama rather than
the tender ballad of old. These later performances can be found on numerous bootleg CDs
including “Golden Vanity” and the “Genuine ever Ending Tour Covers Collection 1988-
~Derek Barker (The Songs He didn’t write)


1962 1
1981 2
1988 24
1989 19
1990 2
1991 8

Gaslight Cafe, Late 1962:

She looked to the East, she looked to the West,
She saw his pale corpse a-comin’,
Cryin’, “Put him down and leave him there
So I might gaze upon him.”

The more she gazed, the more she mourned,
Until she burst out cryin’;
Sayin’, “I beg you come and take him away,
For my heart now too is dyin’!”

Park West – Park City – Salt Lake City, Utah – 13 June 1988

Jones Beach State Park – Wantagh, New York – 1 July 1988

“Oh, father, father, come dig my grave,
Dig it wide an’ narrow.
Poor William died for me today;
I’ll die for him tomorrow.”

They buried him in the old churchyard,
They buried her beside him,
And from his heart grew a red, red rose,
And from her heart a briar.

Greek Theatre – Hollywood – Los Angeles, California – 4 August 1988

Schlösshof – Bad Mergentheim, Germany – 22 June 1991

They grew, they grew so awful high
Till they could grow no higher,
An’ ’twas there they tied a lover’s knot,
The red rose and the briar.

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a maid a-dwellin.’
Had a name was known both far and near,
An’ her name was Barb’ry Allen.

And then came “Scarlet Town” last year…

Read Hallgeir’s “stab” at Scarlet Town here:

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