The Red Rose and the Briar

A brief look at the ballad tradition, with special reference to “Barbara Allen”

Traditionally and historically a ballad is an oral narrative poem with no attributed author, sometimes recited and sometimes sung, occasionally to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. The heyday of the ballad was the late Middle Ages and the most prolific area was that of the Border Counties of England and the Lowlands of Scotland. Indeed it is common to talk of ‘Border Ballads’, even though in time they have spread throughout most parts of the British Isles.

We should be careful to distinguish between the traditional Border ballad and the later ‘street’ or ‘broadside’ ballad. The former comes from a preliterate, rural community, tends to the tragic, romantic and heroic, frequently contains elements of the supernatural and is often contained in tenuously connected narrative fragments. The street ballad comes later, is urban, comic and realistic, passed around a literate society in printed form and tends to have a more leisurely and detailed narrative delivery. We shall concern ourselves in this article only with the first kind.

Our knowledge of the English ballad today is largely due to a certain Prof. Francis James Child, who in his five volume collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) has left us the definitive ballad canon, consisting of 305 Ballads in 1000 versions. These are songs once sung by milkmaids, nurses and ploughmen: popular music in the real sense of the word, music of the people, authors unknown.

Child’s studies encompassed both the British Isles and North America, where the settlers took their customs with them, often living in closed communities with little contact with the linguistic and cultural mainstream. One often cited example is that of the pockets of communities in the Appalachian Mountains who when ‘rediscovered’ at the turn of the twentieth century were still speaking a variety of English that was in all effects that of Shakespeare’s England. In many cases they had also kept the songs and customs they brought with them from the various parts of England they had fled.

While Child is the undoubted authority on ballad texts his counterpart for the collection of ‘tunes” was a certain Bertrand Harris Bronson, who in his four volume publication The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, published in New Jersey between 1959-72 collected an enormous variety of different musical versions. Together with his UK counterpart Cecil Sharp of the English Folk Song and Dance Society an amazing amount of fieldwork has been done, tracking down elderly people in isolated rural areas who have maintained an oral tradition that includes songs first mentioned more than five hundred years ago. Fortunately much of this material has now been recorded and is available for consultation through the Library of Congress and other similar organisations.

Some characteristics of the ballad

 The tale and the tune were of equal importance. The ballad was made for singing but the ‘story’ was predominant. There was a set of standard images, metaphors and conventions familiar to the public who therefore knew what to expect. A parallel can be drawn here with audiences attending Elizabethan or Jacobean theatre who also knew what was going to ‘happen’; the strength of the play (or ballad) lay not only in the telling but also in the retelling of a familiar tale.

Most ballads seem to be medieval in origin. At this time society was largely illiterate and it was not until the Eighteenth century that ballads began to be collected in written form. It is because ballads come from a pre-literate era that there tend to be so many different versions.

While originally the events behind many ballads may have been local the story will have spread more widely. Presumably travelling people, the equivalent of today’s buskers and ‘travellers’, moved from town to town and a good story-teller or troubadour would have been able to count on getting his supper.

People in medieval England and Scotland were more mobile than is often supposed and the versions carried around the country by travelling balladeers would have been oral, not written. Ballads would have travelled slowly, as there was no mass dissemination through the national media as today. But the ‘essence’ of the ballad will gradually have made its way around the country, even if the form suffered many changes.

The ballad has a stylistic and thematic clarity. The themes are simple: revenge, unrequited love, mistreated maidens, philanderers getting their comeuppance, etc. Roles are on the whole polarised into good and bad, black and white.

Essentially the ballad was made for singing; they can be considered narrative songs with a metrical structure that made them easy to memorise. The oral tradition with its consequent call for memory skills led to certain stylistic features: vocabulary conventions, simple and predictable rhymes, incremental repetitions, obligatory epithets, magical numbers, nuncupative testaments (see below), commonplace phrases, a strong reliance on dramatic dialogue, etc.

These features helped to make the ballads easy to remember. The oral balladeer, unlike more ‘literary’ poets, depended on prefabricated formulas which would provide him with a convenient mental package in which he could wrap his narrative. This, easily fixed in the brain, was equally easily passed on, but what was passed on was the ‘shape’, not the form. New singers would adapt the shape to new circumstances, personalising it and making it comfortable to them, yet the ballad remained recognisable.

On different occasions the same performer might modify some aspects of the form but the shape of the song remained recognisably the same – orally transmitted and orally transmuted[1]. One Elizabethan song, Lamikin (Child 93), is printed by Child in twenty-two different versions but they all tell essentially the same tale.

What happens is that the narrative macrostructure remains intact while the stylistic microstructure changes. This is hard to understand for those who live in a literate society, but a good analogy is a joke which remains constant and recognisable although there is no fixed way of telling it.


 The scales on which many folk ballads are based differed from the major and minor as used in Western music today. Some belong to the family of what are sometimes called ‘Greek’ modes. Some of them are considered ‘gapped’ scales (certain steps being consistently absent) while others seem to belong to no classifiable system whatsoever.

In the earlier part of this century US Professor of Music John Jacob Niles made an extraordinary recording of some of the Child ballads to the accompaniment of a home-made dulcimer. Very rare today, two albums are available on the Folkways label and his falsetto singing style may give a fair representation of how some of these ballads once sounded. Other recordings have been archived at the Library of Congress and by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. In Britain today there is a strong revivalist movement in traditional folk music and much is available on disk, cassette and CD.


The verse structure is typically abcb and 179 out of the 305 ballads in the Child canon follow this pattern, with a and c being four-stress and b being three-stress lines. We see this in Mary Hamilton (Child 173 I), Geordie (Child 209) and Barbara Allen (Child 84) to name but three of the best known ballads. There is a tendency to repeat the last line of each stanza.

The typical ballad metre has quatrains which alternate iambic tetrameters with iambic trimeters and it is probable that the form was once a fourteen syllable couplet which later split into the common eight and six syllable form.

Such a split may well have brought an increasing tendency to rhyme the first and third lines as well as the third and fourth, giving the abab structure present in many of the later ballads. Nevertheless, given the enormous dialectal variation around the country, the idiosyncrasies and idiolects of each individual singer and the extent to which the language has changed over the centuries it is hard to do more than make an educated guess as to how they would have sounded.

Ballads commonly contain a ‘refrain’ which is poetically decorative, easy to remember and musically essential. This is echoed in carols, folk stories (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood with it’s frequently repeated “who’s been …ing”) and sagas.[2] We can see this refrain today in Bob Dylan’s song A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (recently revived by Edie Brickell) where he has the recurring lines

Where have you been my blue-eyed son
Where have you been my darling young one

in which a dialogue between mother and son is patterned very closely indeed on Lord Randal (Child 12), with its

Oh where have you been, Lord Randall my son ?
O where have you been, my handsome young man ?

although the narrative development differs [3].

Rhyme schemes are generally predictable and often sound forced to a modern audience – ‘bower’ & ‘honour’, ‘warm’ & ‘bairn’, ‘narrow’ & ‘sorrow’ & ‘tomorrow’ – although these usually present no problem when sung. These reflect sound changes that have taken place in the language but the conventions remain and are followed today as part of the tradition even in more modern ballads. One example: in the relatively recent The Wild Colonial Boy the word ‘wound’ (injury) is made to rhyme with ‘ground’ [4].

Although the music is generally subjugated to the words – in fact most ballads were originally sung unaccompanied – the ‘tune’ can sometimes (although admittedly not always) be very melodic. Joan Baez exploited this aspect of the ballad very successfully in the sixties with a series of studio recordings of the Child ballads. As for variety, one ballad, The Maid Freed from the Gallows (Child 95), was registered by Bronson with 68 different tunes. There is a very definite tendency, however, for the melody to be simple and repetitive, and it is interesting that Blues, although not sharing the same melodies, often shares the same external structures. A fascinating bridge between the traditions of the folk ballad and the blues can be found in Bob Dylan’s deliberately monotonous Ballad of Hollis Brown, which echoes many conventions of the past while remaining firmly rooted in the dust bowl present Dylan inherited for a while from Woody Guthrie.

The narrative tends to be very dramatic (see text of Barbara Allen in box) with an explosive situation and highly volatile characters. Something simply has to happen and does. There is a clear parallel here with the fatalism of classical tragedy.

Tales may not be new. Indeed, generally they are not, but like classic tragedy they can withstand re-telling. Nor are they particularly concerned with historical accuracy. The ballad is autonomous, that is to say it contains its own terms of reference, and has its own internal consistency and coherence.

The symbolism can be repetitive but also very powerful. A good example can be found at the very end of Barbara Allen where the ‘Red Rose’ (the cultivated, perfect bloom, representing amongst other things the noble Sweet William) and the ‘Briar’ (the wild rose, either born that way or reverted to type, representing the feral, untamed Barbara Allen), unable to be together in life, are finally united in death. For me this couplet is one of the finest and most evocative in the whole of the Child collection.

Many conventions of vocabulary are set pieces that occur in ballad after ballad. Some examples: ‘seven brave sons’, ‘bridle me my milk-white steed’, ‘twelve month and a day’. And there are narrative conventions too. If one lover dies, then usually so does the other, inevitably ‘on the morrow’, and as often as not ‘in sorrow’.

Deathbed and scaffold speeches are common, often accompanied by the nuncupative testament where a dying or departing protagonist orally disposes of his worldly goods. This is sometimes done ironically, with a dying subject leaving a curse behind him instead of his chattels. An example is The Cruel Brother (Child 11A), where the dying heroine leaves all her worldly goods to various faithful family members but when asked about her brother (who has stabbed her for not asking him to approve her choice of husband)

What will you leave to your brother John

she replies:

The gallows tree to hang him on

There are early glimpses of magic realism too. Actions and events are often exaggerated to make them more vivid – e.g. a man’s legs are cut off in battle and he goes on fighting on his stumps. On the more human side, simple people derive vicarious pleasure from listening to tales of ladies in all their finery, robes and jewels. And perhaps too a touch of Schadenfreude in seeing how far the high and mighty can fall, or be punished.

Stark contrasts are common, as in Mary Hamilton:

When she cam to the Netherbrow Port
She laughed loud laughters three
But when she cam to the gallows-foot
The tears blinded her ee

and again in the Gypsie Laddie (Child 200)

Last night I slept in a goose feather bed
With the lily white sheets around me so
And tonight I’ll sleep all alone in the deep
Alone with the black black gypsy O


Ballad singers wanted to provide exciting narrative, to tell extraordinary tales, with easily assimilated narrative substance that would provide a welcome means of escape from the predictable rhythms of everyday life. People today are on the whole empirical – that is to say we understand the nature of cause and effect. We tend today to rely on information where the non-literate relied on imagination.

The balance people held between rational belief and superstition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is not immediately easy to comprehend for a twentieth century audience. Folklore in those times was an imaginative interpretation of an apparently random universe and people took entertainment very seriously indeed. They were perhaps naive, but not hopelessly credulous, nor totally at the mercy of superstition, rooted as they were in the harsh reality of their rural world.

An analysis of most popular ballads shows that they deal with tragic love, the eternal triangle, murder, rape, magic, romantic passion, unrequited love and the supernatural. Much in fact like best-sellers today. This is not so much to say that the people of the time believed in ghosts, the supernatural, etc., as that they liked hearing about them. They enjoyed a good story. But we are talking about the dawn of the age of reason here, not about Neanderthals shivering in some primeval bog. That said, even today how many of us are altogether happy alone in the forest at night? And in those days there was a lot of forest and no artificial light.

Interestingly enough, even in an age where church attendance was compulsory by law, there is a noticeable lack of religious dogma in the ballads. Indeed, they frequently deal with sex and violence and even those with religious themes (inevitably Christian but with occasional heretical elements) would have been blasphemous to the strictly orthodox puritan. This is a people’s tradition, not something foisted upon them by officialdom, and it deals with the things they were concerned with (and presumably interested in). Rape, premarital sex, marital infidelity, unwanted pregnancies and children born out of wedlock are at the heart of the ballad tradition yet a moralistic tone is almost entirely absent. This is not to say that revenge or justice are not meted out but carnality per se is not overtly condemned.

The verbal duel and the riddle – examples are Fause Knight upon the Road (Child 3) and Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship [5] (Child 46 A) – are other frequent elements. The second of these is a typical contest with chastity at stake and has strong sexual overtones throughout. The ballad, the people’s song, is nothing if not earthy.

Returning to the theme of magic and the supernatural we can see a frequent preoccupation with metamorphosis, changelings and fairy folk. Interestingly enough, the theme of Silkie, otherwise known as The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry (Child 113) with a protagonist that is half man and half seal, has only recently been revived in local cinemas as El Secreto de Roan Irish. Resurrection, witchcraft, battles between human and fairy forces; these are themes that recur throughout the Child canon.

So too is the idea of defeat against insuperable odds – the battle of Agincourt was after all a relatively recent reality and one kept alive in every Englishman’s breast. Revived by Shakespeare in Henry V, Agincourt was invoked even as recently as the Second World War in Olivier’s propagandist film production and yet again, a few years ago, in Kenneth Branagh’s rather less satisfying techni-colour extravaganza. Sympathy for the underdog is timeless, and was exploited in the Middle Ages just as much as today.

I remarked earlier that the ballads are not necessarily good history. We can obviously put the natural deformity of detail down to the ravages of time but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. At the time the dealings of King and Court were greatly removed from the common people who in more remote areas might live several years without even knowing that a reigning monarch had been replaced. The sea captain Patrick Spens is well known today, but who was he ? No one knows. The legends (and ballads) of Robin Hood are none the less enjoyable for the fact that the outlaw himself is a very elusive historical personage, most probably an amalgam of several different people. For the ballad historical details are not important. In time the essence of the tale becomes more important than the veracity of the events or the identity of the protagonists.

Mention should be made of the cinematographic aspect of the ballad. I use the word ‘cinematographic’ because the conventions are in a sense a precursor of modern editing techniques in film making; the quick cut, the fade, the dissolve, the flashback, etc.

Consider these lines from Patrick Spens (Child 58 A):

The king hath sent a letter
And sealed it with his hand
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens
Was walking on the strand

where from one line to the next, with no linkage, the scene dissolves from the king sealing the letter to Sir Patrick Spens reading it, exactly as is done on TV or in the cinema today. Examples like this abound in the Child ballads.

Finally, we return to the evocative language. The word evokes the image, and the conventions must be respected. Magic numbers were very real – the number seven, for example, as in ‘seven days and nights he rode’, ‘seven brave sons with seven swords’, etc. Horses are typically ‘milk white steeds’ and are as often as not ‘bridled’ [6], periods of time are invariably finished by ‘and a day’, etc. In ballads of the 1960s the ‘milk white steed’ had become the ‘midnight freight’; equally evocative, the only difference being the terms of reference.

Bonny Barbara Allen

In an entry in his famous Diary for 2 January 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, the British Naval Chronicler Samuel Pepys refers to the song Barbary Allen (sic), and how he would have the woman with whom he was infatuated at that time sing it for him. In their billets-doux she was his ‘Barbara Allen’ and he was, with apologies to the sensitive, her ‘Dapper Dicky’.

A famous collection of ballads was published in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The editor was one Thomas Percy, who was encouraged in his venture by Shenstone, Johnson, Garrick and others. Familiarly known as Percy’s Reliques, it was immensly popular and, along with The Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and Milton’s Pilgrim’s Progress was through the years one of the major influences on British culture[7], although the post-literate society towards which we seem to be heading may have no place for any of these.

Percy called the ballad Barbara Allen’s Cruelty, and his version ends in sermonising voice:

Farewell, she sayd, ye virgins all
And shun the fault I fell in
Henceforth take warning by the fall
Of cruel Barbara Allen

Barbara Allen is perhaps the most famous of the British ballads and the song itself has survived in many versions. One is left with the feeling that the story (see text) is incomplete, that much is presupposed or deliberately left unsaid. Yet it is in the succinctness of the tale that its strength lies – we are told only that two lovers met and parted, that she hastened his death, was indifferent to his suffering – in some versions she laughs when told how he wastes away – and then repented and died on the following day. Scant detail indeed.

And how to explain her cruelty ? Some versions call her ‘Barbarous Ellen’. There would seem to be a general agreement that Barbara Allen had some power over the man in question – ‘Sweet William’ in the version printed here, in other versions ‘Sir John Graeme’, ‘Jemmy Grove’, et al, – very possibly through some kind of spell or witchcraft.

Maybe she was put out because he had led her on and then abandoned her to marry someone of his own station. For this reason she may have bewitched him, making a ‘voodoo style’ doll out of his clothing, nail parings, hair, etc., into which she stuck steel pins while slowly turning it over a candle flame. In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native Eustacia Vye is bewitched in just this way and the practice was common in country districts in England until at least the mid nineteenth century[8].

There may be a clue in one early variant quoted (but not attributed) by Allingham in his The Ballad Book. Here, in a deathbed conversation between the dying lord and the hard-hearted Barbara Allen, appear the lines:

“Oh do you not mind, young man”, she says
“When the red wine you were filling
That you made the healths go round and round
And slighted Barbara Allen

Here ‘mind’ means remember and ‘healths’ would be toasts drunk to friends present or absent. But discourtesy (‘slights’) over the dinner table seems little enough motive for such cruelty.

In any case the circumstantial detail is not so important – what we have here is the essence of hundreds of romantic love stories distilled into this one ballad. The tantalising lack of detail adds an extra element of mystery to a tragic tale.

Final observations

Traditional ballads were not conceived in artistic isolation to gratify the inspirational genius of a lonely creator, nor to line the pockets of a Motown mogul. They were made to be used, to be handed around and handed on, the proud possession of a people obsessed with survival, taking time out for entertainment that would survive with them and, unbeknownst to them, dramatically outlive them. The turning point came with mass literacy and improved communications. Today the world of the ballad gives us a tantalising glimpse of a past to which we can never return.

© Martin Eayrs, Buenos Aires, November 1995



Bold Alan, The Ballad, London (Methuen) 1979
Bronson Bertrand Harris, The Ballad as Song, Berkley, California (University of California Press) 1969
Bronson Bertrand Harris, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, 4 Vols., Princeton N.J. (University Press) 1959-72
Bryant Arthur, Samuel PepysThe Man in the Making, London (Collins) 1949.
Buchan David, The Ballad and the Folk, London & Boston 1972
Child Francis James, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Vols., Boston 1882-98, reprinted new York (Dover Publications) 1965.
Fowler David C, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, Durham NC 1968.
Graves Robert (ed.), The English Ballad, London 1927.
Kinsley James (ed.), The Oxford Book of Ballads, Oxford (OUP) 1969
Lloyd A L, Folk Song in England, London 1975
Lloyd A L & Vaughan Williams Ralph, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, London (Penguin) 1980.
Reeves James, The Writer’s Approach to the Ballad, London (Harrap) 1976
Sharp Cecil James, Collection of English Folk Songs, 2 Vols., London (OUP) 1974

Appendix: Text of Barbara Allen

Version from memory

‘Twas in the merry month of May
When the green buds they were swellin’
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen.

He sent his servant to the town
To the place where she was dwellin’
Saying you must come to my master dear
If your name be Barbara Allen.

And slowly, slowly, she got up
And slowly went she nigh him
And the only words to him did say
Young man, I think you’re dyin’.

He turned his face unto the wall
And death was in him wellin’
Goodbye, Goodbye, my good friends all
Be good to Barbara Allen.

Now he is dead and in his grave
She heard the death bells knellin’
And every stroke to her did say
Hard-hearted Barbara Allen.

Come, 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
Make it both long and narrow
Sweet William died of love for me
And I will die tomorrow.

Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William lay 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
They grew till they formed a true love’s knot
The red rose round the briar.


[1]     In his troubador/balladeer phase Bob Dylan used to do this when he sang live at his campus concerts in the 1960s, frequently altering the lyrics, often quite drastically, yet always somehow singing ‘the same song’.

[2]     In fact, the scene in Little Red Riding Hood where the girl says to the wolf ‘what great big ……… you’ve got’ comes straight from the Thirteenth Century Norse Edda, where Loki is trying to explain to the giant Thrym why his would-be bride Freya (really Loki in disguise) has such unlady-like features. Plus ça change

[3]     Dylan only takes his version so far, but he does preserve the question and answer format and although obviously his song (about nuclear fallout) goes into very different areas they both, interestingly enough, end in death and destruction.

[4]     Another example, very well known to Anglican church-goers, occurs in the perennial problem posed in the traditional Christmas Carol Good King Wenceslas, where generations of choirmasters have had to decide whether or not to rhyme ‘find’ with ‘wind’ (the kind that blows).

[5]     Perhaps more commonly known as I gave my Love a Cherry

[6]     This is echoed by Dylan in his later, Country, period where (in Country Pie) he sings ‘saddle me up a big white goose’.

[7]     Sir Walter Scott (whose Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is an illuminating source for ballad lovers) remembered “To read and remember was in this instance the same thing, and henceforth I overwhelmed my schoolfellows, and all who would hearken to me, with tragical recitations from the ballads of Percy”.

[8]     Robert Graves (in English and Scottish Ballads) suggests: ‘It is clear enough that Sir John Graeme did not die merely of a broken heart […] He seems to have been a landowner who had an affair with a country girl, but later decided to marry a woman of his own class. When this marriage was announced, the girl avenged herself by bewitching him…’. All this is conjecture, but something slightly foreboding definitely lurks behind the surface text.