One of my all-time favourite records is Selected Jigs Reels And Songs by De Danann. Of course Frankie Gavin’s fiddle and Alec Finn’s bouzouki were at the heart of the De Danann sound. But one of the things that makes this LP special is the singing of Johnny Moynihan, especially his two unaccompanied songs, ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’ and ‘Barbara Allen’, both of which are simply sublime. Johnny’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’ came from the County Armagh singer Sarah Makem. And if you’ve not heard her singing, do yourself a favour and get hold of the Topic CD The Heart Is True, which is as good a record of traditional singing as you’re likely to hear (then, if that just whets your appetite, you can move on to the 3-CD Musical Traditions set As I Roved Out).
This is not Mrs Makem’s gloomy minor key version however. I’d always meant to learn it, but never got further than writing out the words from the De Danann record. The version I actually sing comes (yet again) from Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring and was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923, from William Pittaway of Burford in Oxfordshire. I’m not completely sure when I learned it, but I think it was probably in the early days of Magpie Lane, when I was very much on the look-out for Oxfordshire material. In fact this song was, briefly, in the band’s repertoire. Maybe it’s time to revive it – although I’ve a sneaky suspicion that I’ve grown too attached to singing it unaccompanied to like it any other way.
The song is, according to the notes in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs “far and away the most widely collected song in the English language”. It dates back to at least the mid-seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys heard it sung on 2nd January 1666:
to my Lord Bruncker’s, and there find Sir J. Minnes and all his company, and Mr. Boreman and Mrs. Turner, but, above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen;”
Mrs Knipp was an actress, and predictably it was not just her singing that Sam Pepys admired:
Thence, it being post night, against my will took leave, but before I come to my office, longing for more of her company, I returned and met them coming home in coaches, so I got into the coach where Mrs. Knipp was and got her upon my knee (the coach being full) and played with her breasts and sung, and at last set her at her house and so good night.
(Pepys diary extracts from http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/01/)
The earliest known printed version of the ballad dates from around the same period; the ballad sheet shown here was printed in Newcastle c1760. This copy is from the Bodleian’s collection, but you’ll find another copy of the same ballad at the Huntingdon Digital Library.