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Song of the Week: Barbara Allen

Song of the Week: Barbara Allen

Since my junior year in high school, when my dad handed me a copy of Tom Rush’s Blues, Songs, and Ballads (1964) the song “Barbara Allen” has held onto me. Little did I know back then that this is Child Ballad 84, that it is one of the most collected ballads by folklore fieldworkers, or that carries a variety of names and versions (it’s listed as “Barb’ry Allen” on the Tom Rush LP). I only knew that the story was haunting, the phrases poetic, and the tune stuck in my head for days after each listening.

The other day I ran across the above recording in the American Folklife Center’s online collection, Voices of the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection.  The two performers are Lois Judd and Rosetta Spainhard, Ms. Judd’s mother-in-law. Residents of the Arvin Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp in California, they had traveled from Arkansas in search of work and better living conditions. Set up by the FSA as part of the New Deal, the Arvin camp was one of many established to provide relief for migratory workers seeking employment on the fertile farms of California. Many of these workers were refugees from the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains region, as was the case with Ms. Judd and Ms. Spainhard. While not always popular with Californians, the camps offered some comfort to those reeling from distress caused by the collapse of family farms and their ways of life. The camps also were spaces for sharing culture and continuing traditions. Writers and photographers employed by the Works Progress Administration set out to document the everyday life of camp residents. Charles L. Todd and Robert Sorkin were two such fieldworkers, and their time in California camps during 1940 and 1941 resulted in 18 hours of recordings and 28 photographs.

“Migrant camp, wide shot” by Robert Hemming, N.D. While the name of the camp is not identified in the item record for this photo, it does give provide a sense of what FSA migrant worker camps looked like in the early 1940s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afcts.p001

Migrant camp, wide shot” by Robert Hemming, N.D. While the name of the camp is not identified in the item record for this photo, it does give provide a sense of what FSA migrant worker camps looked like in the early 1940s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afcts.p001

The sparse and grainy rendition of this ballad by Judd and Spainhard is the second of two recordings that Todd and Sonkin made on August 1, 1940 with the duo. During the first attempt, the disc machine malfunctioned and the recording speeds up about halfway through. This second attempt begins with a brief discussion, through which we learn that Ms. Judd first heard this version of the tune around 1920 in Kentucky. It’s the “oldest” version she knows, and she sings it despite preferring the “newer” version. Just after they begin, we hear a fragment of a guitar chord. This was Ms. Judd’s husband, Nathan, who “tried to join with guitar but couldn’t get started,” according to field notes typed by Todd and Sorkin.

There is yet a third recording of “Barbara Allen” from that same session (below), and it sounds more like the Tom Rush version I know. Uptempo and with a bit of a country swing, it features Mr. Judd’s guitar accompaniment while Ms. Judd sings alone. The melody line is quite different from the first recording, and this is the “newer” version that she prefers. Ms. Judd states that she heard this form of the tune on the radio in Indiana. Unfortunately, it is a partial recording and the track ends abruptly at the tail of the fourth verse.

As I noted, “Barbara Allen” appears prominently in folk song collecting efforts across the U.S. and the U.K., and the ballad is no stranger to the American Folklife Center. In the mid-1960s, musicologist Charles Seeger edited a collection of recorded examples from the Archive of Folk Song for the purpose of studying differences in melodic elements within a ballad family. The Library of Congress released this collection in 1966 as an LP titled, Versions and Variants of the Tunes of Barbara Allen (AFS L54). Seeger’s extensive liner notes analyzing the melodic diversity across the examples are available from the American Folklife Center’s website. As of now, however, a digital release of the LP is not available.

We do have recordings of many more versions of the ballad than the 30 Seeger pulled together for that LP. A search of our online Traditional Music and Spoken Word catalog  generates 101 results for “Barbara Allen”. Each of these results is a digital scan from our physical card catalog, which originated in a Works Progress Administration project from the late 1930s and early 1940s. You can read more about the development of the analog catalog and the efforts to digitize it here.

Finally, “Barbara Allen” has appeared on this very blog, albeit not as an item from our collections, per se. The story is a fun one, so we encourage you to read it here.


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