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.