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“And Death is printed on his face…” Shirley Collins’ Barbara Allen

Sort of an inappropriate time of year to post this, as the lyrics refer to Martinmas (November 11), but it fits this dismal late spring NYC weather of late. ALSO- some versions of the song take place in the “merry month of May”, so….

Either way, what a ballad!

It is first mentioned in the 1660’s in the journal of Samuel Pepys, but likely dates from well before that time. It has been played by tens of thousands of anonymous musicians over the centuries, and therefore, there exist countless versions. Of course, like much British music, the song jumped the Atlantic into American folk. To date, there are many, strikingly contrasting, recordings of the ballad.

Among the versions I’ve heard, this is the most raw, yearning, painful, and bleak rendition. I daresay I don’t know a whole lot about her, but Shirley Collins is a great figure in the English folk revival of the 1960’s to present, and presents “Barbara Allen” with the some of the most bittersweet despair one can conjure in word and song..

“It was round and about last Martinmas-tide,
when the green leaves were swelling.
That young Jimmy Grove of the west country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allen.

“He sent his man into the town,
to the place where she was dwelling.
Says will you come to my Master dear,
if you’re name is Barbara Allen.

“Then slowly, slowly got she up.
And slowly came she nighing
And all she said when there she came:
‘Young man, I think you’re dying.’

”   ‘Indeed I’m sick, I’m very sick.
and shan’t get any any better.
Unless I gain the love of one,
the love of Barbara Allen’

”    ‘But don’t you remember last Saturday night?
when the red wine you were spilling?
You drank all health to the ladies there,
but you slighted Barbara Allen!’

And Death is printed on his face,
and all his heart is stealing,
And again, he cried as she left his side-
‘Hard-hearted Barbara Allen!’

“As she was a-going over the fields
she heard the death bell tolling,
And every sound it seemed to say,
‘Hard-hearted Barbara Allen!’

”   ‘Oh, mother, mother, make my bed
Come make it soft and narrow
Since Jimmy died for me today,
I shall die for him tomorrow.'”