12 Days of Christmas Songs (#5) – “Barbara Allen”

“Barbara Allen” is a real downer of a song; no question about it. And it isn’t really a Christmas song, but I have always associated it with this time of year, dating from my first viewing of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim as Scrooge.

Have a look/listen at this scene near the end of the film, when Scrooge goes to his nephew’s home to reconcile with his only living relation.

The harmony is lovely, and as the song is being sung at a Christmas Day gathering, you can see how I might have assumed it was an old carol. The Wikipedia entry on “Barbara Allen” says that the song’s earliest mention comes in a diary entry by Samuel Pepys, dated January 2, 1666, that talks about how it was sung at a New Year’s party.

Another holiday connection.

Which is odd because basically “Barbara Allen” is about a young man on his deathbed who sends for the girl he has a crush on. She comes, takes one look at him, and remarks, “Young man, I think you’re dying.” So then, his romantic hopes dashed, he turns his face to the wall and dies. Barbara Allen goes home and tells her mother that since her love died for her that day, she would die, in turn, the next.

How this song became associated with Christmas and New Year’s Day is beyond me.

Even stranger is the fact that this 17th-century tune became a darling of the folksinger set in the 1950s–1970s. Maybe because of the striking melody, but maybe because of the lyrics, too. In “For Dave Glover,” a poem that appeared in the program for the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan said that

The folk songs showed me the way

They showed me that songs can say somethin human [sic]

Without “Barbara Allen” there’d be no “Girl From the North Country”

While looking up some basic info for this post, I was surprised to find video on YouTube of the song being performed by Joan Baez, Art Garfunkel, Emmylou Harris, and Pete Seeger. I’ve posted them below in case you’re interested in hearing any/all. (Sorry about any ads, if there are any.) Plus, because I just mentioned it (and happen to really like it myself 🙂 ), I’ve also included “Girl from the North Country,” as sung by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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