Barbry Allen

This is one of the best-loved of all traditional songs on both sides of the Atlantic, sung for us here by Appalachian folk music icon Jean Ritchie, who will turn 90 later this year.

The earliest known mention of this song is in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for January 2nd 1666, where he refers to ‘the little Scotch song of Barbary Allen’. Wikipedia gives a very good summary of the history of the song; Mainly Norfolk gives the British recording history, but shows no knowledge that the song has ever been sung in North America! There are many discussion threads about this song at Mudcat Café; this is as good a place to start as any.

Jean Ritchie was born in 1922 in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, the youngest of fourteen children. As a child she learned many traditional folk songs; later in life she passed them on to the rest of the world. She often sang a cappella but also accompanied herself with the Appalachian dulcimer. This website is one of the best sources of information about her life and music.

As I’ve often said, one of the most delightful CDs I’ve ever heard is a live recording made by Jean and the late Doc Watson in 1963 called ‘At Folk City‘ (Live). Buy it; you’ll love it.


4 thoughts on “Barbry Allen

  1. I agree about “At Folk City” – great album!
    I grew up in that part of the world, for which I am grateful. You had to find some of the old-timers to sing this music, for it was no longer part of the mainstream culture (because of television, to a large degree); for me, it was the grandmother of one of my friends. She would sit on her front porch on summer evenings with her dulcimer and sing the old songs, very much in Jean Ritchie’s style. I would sometimes listen, but I wish I had taken the opportunity to learn the songs from her; I was too busy with other things, and so was most everyone else.

  2. Tim Chesterton

    What a privilege, Andrew! Even though I grew up in England there was no traditional folk music in my house, or very little, anyway.

  3. Lovely. Thanks, Tim.

    When we went on a family vacation in the Great Smokey Mountains, I remember fondly hearing live folk musicians sing mountain music in programs at the national park. Also, on several holidays in state parks in the mountains in Arkansas, we heard performances of the old mountain music, which I love. Hearing the musicians gave me the bright idea to buy a mountain dulcimer. I learned to play, but I gave it up some years ago. My dulcimer was made in Arkansas by a member of the McSpadden family. It’s a lovely hourglass-shaped instrument with a fine tone.

    I’m amazed at the things we bought back then when we had no money, essentials like musical instruments and art. We had our priorities right.

  4. Tim Chesterton

    What a great story! I hope you take that dulcimer out again before too long and play it again, Mimi.

    Marci and I take the view that there’s always room for one more musical instrument in the house!

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