The YouTube recording below features a very young Joan Baez playing this song, I suspect in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Looking at the video, you can pretty quickly get a sense of how Joan Baez plays Barbara Allen. The song is in 4/4 time. On the first and third beats of each bar she picks out a bass note with her thumb. For the opening C chord, for example, she picks out the bass C note (5th string, 3rd fret) on the first beat of the bar, and the bass G note (6th string, 3rd fret) on the third beat of the bar. On the second and fourth beats of each bar she plays triplets: 1st string, followed by 2nd string, followed by 3rd string (the notes are E, C, and G for the opening C chord).
So, where does Barbara Allen (also known as "Barb'ry Ellen" and "Barbara Ellen") come from? Well, it's certainly from the British Isles, though whether from England or Scotland is unclear (I've plumped for England, but frankly, that's just a guess). It is old enough to have been mentioned by the great diarist, Samuel Pepys (in his diary entry of on January 2, 1666 he mentions hearing it sung by a Mrs Knipp). Like most truly old songs, there are many versions of the lyrics and variants of the tune. For example, the song often begins with a verse that I have ommitted:
In Scarlet town, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’,
Made every youth cry Well-a-way!
Her name was Barbara Allen.
From the British Isles, the song soon established itself in America, where it became very popular and spawned yet more variants. It has been performed and recoreded in many different styles. Personally, I would describe the Joan Baez version as classic American folk. But you can also find country versions of the song (for example check out the version by Tommy Faile). My personal favourite is by somebody whom I know just about nothing about: Alan Moores. You can listen to it here:
C G7 C
'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 into the wall
And death was in him welling,
Good-bye, good-bye, 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
And 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.