Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Barbary Allen- the Plot Thickens

In my last post I mentioned that I was planning on talking about choices around what to sing and what to exclude in contemporary contexts, but I thought I’d go ahead and write about a remarkable song I’ve been listening to this last week.
Barbara Allan is amongst the most widespread ballads sung today. It was noted by English administrator Samuel Pepys back in 1666, and other versions were documented imid-18th century England. The song has made its way across parts of Europe and to the U.S.- where it was easy for collectors to find an abundance of versions amongst most singing communities.
The standard tale is that a young man, who here we’ll call “Sweet William,” has come from a foreign region and courts a young woman named Barbara Allan. Barbara refuses his love, and he becomes deathly ill for want of her. She is called for and visits his deathbed, once again rejecting him. On her way home she often encounters his corpse being carried to the graveyard. Ultimately, Barbara regrets her rejection of William and dies out of sorrow.
I have to say I’ve never been a fan of this ballad. The plot has always seemed overly sappy, the characters too simple. Barbara always seemed unrealistically cruel for the small slights given to her by William. Perhaps, also, I just grew up hearing this song too much, and got sick of it rather quickly.
In any case, in my research this past week I came across a version from the Couch family that I’m very excited to learn. This version implies new complexities to the story that I haven’t heard anywhere else, and a visit by a ghost to boot!   
Called “Barbary Allen” the song follows a fairly common melody, similar to how Jean Ritchie performs it (listen here), but less ornamented. The Couch brothers Jim and Dave perform it with a banjo. It begins:

It was all in the month of May,
While the green buds they were swellin’
Sweet William come from the western states,
And courted Barbary Allen.

The “West Country” of older versions has become the “western states.” One can imagine singers of the early 20th century envisioning William freshly arrived from work out west- perhaps in Texas or Oklahoma.

In this version, as in many American versions, we don’t spend any time learning about the courtship of the two lovers. Instead, the next verse tells of William calling for Barbary to come because he has fallen ill. Then:

So slowly, slowly she got up,
And hated to deny him,
All she said when she got there,
“Young man, I see you lying.”

She hated to deny him? According to any other version I’ve read or researched, Barbary is more than happy to deny William his wants. This line about denying could be ignored as a sort of “filler” line that fits with the rhyme scheme of the verse, and has lost its older meaning, if not perhaps for some later developments in the plot.
The song goes on with the standard lines of William saying he’s “sick and very sick” and needs Barbary to be better.  Barbary doesn’t answer him at all. In fact, the next verse is just her leaving the room.

So slowly, slowly, she got up
And started off to leave him
He turned his pale face to the wall
And bursted out to crying.

These last two lines are so heartbreakingly emotional to me. A more common version of this verse would read:

“He turned his pale face unto the wall
And death was drawing nigh him.
Good bye, Good bye to dear friends all,
Goodbye sweet Bar'bra Allen.”

The William of these older versions is very sick and weak, but his last words carry a formalism and dignity. Instead here he has “bursted out to crying.” This loss of control does wonders to the song for me. One can intimate his emotions more strongly, feel his chest heave in grief, feel those sharp intakes of air between sighs.

Barbary walks home, as birds sing round her “Hardhearted Barbary Allen.”

In many versions Barbara then encounters William’s corpse being carried to the graveyard. She then asks “Lie down, lie down that corpse of clay, and let me look upon him.” She gazes down on the corpse, her “cheeks with laughter swellin’” (from NC versions). Even at this point, in the standard version, she exhibits a good deal of cruelty by laughing at the corpse.  

But that’s not what happens in the Couch version. Read on:

She looked to the east and then to the west
She saw some cold corpse standing
“Lie down, lie down, cold corpse,” she said
“And let me look upon you.”

“I can’t lie down, I can’t lie down,
I can’t lie down to save you,
I am a cold corpse of the clay,
I can’t let you look upon me.”

WOW! These verses in which Barbary is usually viewing the corpse transform here into an encounter with Sweet William’s ghost! She entreats him to lie down, and he refuses. This is where the mind of the listener can take over, and shape this encounter to have the emotionality that they most appreciate. To me, these verses are Barbary asking to be near him one more time, wanting what she had denied him in life. He refuses, basically saying it’s too late (and perhaps even bad luck) for her to look on him now.

What’s also so delightful about these verses is that the singers, probably unknowingly, are referencing older kinds of ghost encounters in British lore. As my folklorist friend Bobby McMillon has explained to me, ghosts in most older ballads were not the sort of vaporous “haints” of contemporary American lore. In older tales, ghosts were in fact the corpses of the dead themselves, come back to communicate something (for a great example see SweetWilliam’s Ghost, Child #77) Because of how the many authors of this song have interpreted these lines, William has emerged as a corpse ghost, just as many other characters do in older ballads.

We’re almost done folks! Here’s the next verse:

She turned her face all down the road
And bursted out to crying,
“O mother, O mother, you’re the one to blame,
You would not let me marry him.”

WOW, again. I’ve never encountered this plot twist before. Barbary, it seems, did desire and love William. Now, if the listener wishes, they can recontextualize the earlier line saying she “hated to deny him.” One can also understand why, when she is called to his home, she doesn’t tell him of how he’s slighted her, or that he can’t have her. She’s being held back by her mother instead, but perhaps feels too threatened to communicate this to her beloved.  Saying nothing, she leaves.

The song moves to the conclusion with the usual “O Mother, O Mother, go make my bed” verse, followed by

Sweet William died on Saturday night
And Barbary died on Sunday,
Her mother died for the love of both,
And all were buried on Monday.

The traditional briar and rose grow out of each other’s graves, and the song finishes with:

They lapped and tied in a true lover’s knot
And then they died for longing.

“Overlapped” has become “lapped,” which feels more affectionate and intimate. And usually the union of the briar and rose represent a completion, but not here. Even the last words imply a deep tension, a wanting that can’t be fulfilled.

Whew! Congratulations for reading this far down the post. I will try and refrain from picking apart most ballads to this degree of detail, but I was so thrilled by this rare version and wanted to share why I thought it made such a rich story.

A phrase I often hear about the art of writing well is “show don’t tell.” It surprises me to see how closely the old ballads adhere to that philosophy. We are not told what a character is feeling as often as we are simply told what they are doing. The ballad doesn’t tell us that William is very sad, instead we see him “bursting out to crying.” We know how he feels, we don’t need the story to tell us directly.
In part, that’s because the job of conveying emotion is assigned to the singer’s voice. This doesn’t mean the singer necessarily dramatizes the action, but it does mean that the singer’s tonal quality, the ornamentation, the voice breaks, all add up to a strongly visceral experience for the listener. It’s no mystery that the high, nasal tones, and the purposeful voice breaks in many Appalachian songs are innately reminiscent of the sound of human wailing, of human cries.
The song tells the story, the singer conveys the emotional tone, and then the listener decides to what depth they will feel what they are hearing. Listening to ballads in innately participatory, because the song asks you to interpret and explore the emotionality behind it. Even as they tell of relationships from long ago, ballads ask for reciprocation, they ask for a contemporary relationship with you, the listener.

That’s all for now.
In Song and Solidarity,
Saro LT

 An interpretation of Barbara Allen by contemporary illustrator Charles Vess.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post -- I've always felt ambiguous about this ballad because the tune is so lovely (a good example of how a simple tune can be so memorable) but the story, as you say, does not have great narrative force -- unlike ballads, say, like Little Musgrave or Sheath and Knife -- but it does have a dynamite ending. And there hangs its huge popularity. I think listeners bide their time with the lovely tune waiting for the True Lovers Knot, which is a helluva way to finish a song. The strength of the tune shows itself in its consistency. I don't think I've ever heard a version of this ballad with a different tune, whereas other popular ballads like Polly Vaughan and Stewball/Skewball seem to have multiple tunes. But I do know a version by Shirley Collins that omits the True Lovers Knot verse at the end and I always feel let down when I listen to it. Shirley's voice fits the tune beautifully but then I'm like, huh, what was the point.....But these new verses are terrific, so thanks for the research. .