Bob Dylan’s fascination with Barbara Allen

by Jochen Markhorst

Samuel Pepys’ diaries reveal that the indestructible evergreen “Barbara Allen” already was a popular song 350 years ago: on January 2, 1666 he tells us about a New Year’s party where one of his mistresses, the actress Elizabeth Kneipp, enchants him with her performance of “a little Scotch song of Barbara Allen.”

Between 1962 and 1991, Dylan plays the song over 60 times on stage. In interviews, he often refers to this song as example the timeless, eternal quality of traditional songs:

A:     I became interested in folk music because I had to make it somehow. Obviously I’m not a hard-working cat. I played the guitar, that was all I did. I thought it was great music. Certainly I haven’t turned my back on it or anything like that. There is–and I’m sure nobody realizes this, all the authorities who write about what it is and what it should be, when they say keep things simple, they should be easily understood–folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s never been simple. It’s weird, man, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts. I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs. They were out of sight.

Q:     Like what songs?

A:    “Little Brown Dog.” “I bought a little brown dog, its face is all gray. Now I’m going to Turkey flying on my bottle.” And “Nottemun Town,” that’s like a herd of ghosts passing through on the way to Tangiers. “Lord Edward,” “Barbara Allen,” they’re full of myth.

(1965, Nora Ephron & Susan Edminston interview)

Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of peoples brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die.

(1966, Nat Hentoff – Playboy interview)

The song is mentioned by a lot of musicians in autobiographies and interviews. Remarkably many of them seem to feel the same attraction, endow the same value as Dylan does.

Take for example Ralph Stanley (from The Stanley Brothers), in his memoirs Man Of Constant Sorrow, who uses almost identical words to describe his love:

Those songs are about things that did happen and that’s why they’re still around.They come from things that happen to people. I reckon with a lot of the old songs—“Little Mathie Grove,” “Barbara Allen,” “OmieWise,” “Banks of the Ohio” and so many others—those things actually did happen and they got turned into songs, and those songs are still living long after the people in the songs are dead and gone. The songs don’t die.

Or Judy Collins (in her autobiography Sweet Judy Blue Eyes):

I keep returning to these old, classic songs, often bringing them back to find new meaning and fresh interpretations. “Danny Boy,” “The Lark in the Morning,” “Barbara Allen,” “So Early, Early in the Spring,” and “The Gypsy Rover” have lasted for years and will endure for years more. They touch your heart, and for anyone trying to write new and original songs, they stand as an unspoken challenge: make something as good and as timeless as this and you will have won the heart of your listener. You also will have added something to the story of humankind.

Dylan paraphrases, almost recreates, the song in “Scarlet Town”, as does Elvis Costello in “I Want You” (You said “Young man, I do believe you’re dying”), although Costello’s memories of the song are not as fond as those of other artists:

Music lessons at my school had mostly consisted of making scraping noises on the violin, playing tunelessly on the wooden recorder, or lustily singing patriotic songs like “The British Grenadiers” or weird old ballads about dying for love like “Barbara Allen,” but that’s about as far as it went.

(Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink)

Perhaps a British thing; equally unmoved Mike Oldfield reports in his memoirs (Changeling):

One of the few things I enjoyed at St Edward’s was the singing lessons. We would sing traditional old English songs like ‘Barbara Allen’, with the music teacher playing the upright piano. I was in the choir at school, and I had a reasonable soprano voice.

But the timeless quality and the universal significance of the song is perhaps best illustrated by Suze Rotolo, in her book A Freewheelin’ Time:

The gossipy insinuations by the folkies around the Village hit hard. Bob had suffered publicly and as a result I was the villain, the Barbara Allen to his Sweet William.

She does seem to admire the song, though:

“He performed often and well and wrote beautiful songs about many things, including the pain caused by a lover who is far away. A recording from that time of him singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” tears at the heartstrings.”

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