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Bob Dylan and Barbara Allen


Not surprisingly, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time over the last two or three days listening to Bob Dylan, although it wasn’t because I needed to persuade myself that he deserved the Nobel committee’s 2016 prize for literature. Funnily enough, the track I’ve ended up playing constantly is one that he didn’t write: the Anglo-Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen”, which dates back to the mid-17th century. It is said to have been a staple of his repertoire in his early days in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, and he has credited it as one of the traditional ballads which taught him that songs could be more than three minutes long. In that sense it played a part in the creation of “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Isis”, “Brownsville Girl”, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and his other epics.

A live performance of the song from his apprentice years is included on Live at the Gaslight 1962, taped in the MacDougal Street basement in October that year, while he was in the middle of recording Freewheelin’. There are three things that give it a prominent place in my list of secret Dylan favourites (alongside “House Carpenter”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Going, Going, Gone”, “Changing of the Guard” and the live version of “Queen Jane Approximately” with the Grateful Dead).

The first and most obvious is his tone, for which only the word “tender” will do, and which is perfectly suited to a tale that ends with the entwining of a red rose and a briar growing out of the graves of the two protagonists. As so often from his performances in this period, you can only wonder at the depth of feeling with which the 21-year-old imbues the song. The second is the artful way he handles the song’s cadences, using his voice and guitar to create tension by stretching and releasing the lines in the way that would become an important factor in some of his best songs (e.g. “It’s Alright, Ma”).

The third is tiny but, to me at least, significant. Most people singing this ballad, including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, begin with the lines “Twas in the merry month of May / When the green buds all were swelling / Sweet William on his death bed lay / For love of Barbara Allen.” Dylan prefers an alternative version, which was also known before the song made its Atlantic crossing, and which usually goes thus: “In Scarlet Town, not far from here, / There was a fair maid dwelling / And her name was known both far and near / And her name was Barbara Allen.” Then he sings the verse with which others open it. I like his way of opening it better: it’s more direct, more compelling.

But he does something else. He changes “Scarlet Town” — which apparently may originally have been a play on the name of the English town of Reading — to “Charlottetown”. It turns out that there are only two places of that name recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. One is in Guyana. The other is on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which turns out to be on the same latitude — just a little above the 46th parallel — as Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace.

They’re 1,350 miles apart, as the black crow flies, but unless somebody can tell me that other singers before Dylan made the same substitution, I’m going to think of it as a conscious choice with an intention behind it. To me, it’s an early example of how he was starting to construct his own songs by reassembling, reshaping and repurposing existing materials, a modus operandi sustained from “Hard Rain” to “Early Roman Kings”. For that reason, I find it unusually moving. And after all, more than 50 years later, on Tempest, his most recent album of his own songs, he included a piece which began “In Scarlet Town, where I was born…”

* The photograph above was taken in 1962 by Joe Alper, whose other images of Dylan can be found at


15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steve Garlick #

    Great piece – I shared it on Facebook by way of illustrating that it is possible to make an informed and incisive comment on Dylan rather than regurgitating sorry old cliché. Most of what I’ve read in the mainstream media leads me to believe the authors have never actually listened to Dylan, they’re simply parroting received opinion. Still not entirety sure about that GD Queen Jane although if nothing else you’ve made me get my copy off the shelf to investigate further!

    October 16, 2016
    • Just listen to QJA apart from the rest of the album. Think about it as a bunch of guys of a certain age fumbling their way through a song they almost remember. It has a sense of struggle — I’m serious about this — that is very touching. And the guitars are beautiful.

      October 16, 2016
  2. Nikolai Shienok #

    Excellent text. Thank you!

    October 17, 2016
  3. Phil Shaw #

    Thanks for an interesting piece, Richard – a typically thoughtful, well-informed corrective to all the sneering about Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature.

    Tim Stanley in The Telegraph suggested that ‘a world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Donald Trump for president’ – one of the most risible conflations of two unrelated topics I’ve ever seen – while on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sunday, all three newspaper reviewers spoke sniffily about the award.

    One, radio journalist Sheila Fogerty, said she didn’t mind his songs but only when other people performed them because she hates his voice. The example she gave? The Byrds? Gene Clark? The Hollies, even? No, Adele!

    Another reviewer, whose name escaped me (though he kept repeating that Brexit meant Brexit), cited a piece in the Sunday Times by the preposterous Rod Liddle to back up his disdain for Dylan. Liddle apparently quoted the lyric to Wiggle, Wiggle to make his case. As Dylan said, in a different context, 50 years ago: “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand.”

    October 17, 2016
    • GuitarSlinger #

      If I may be so bold .. from your comments it seems like an awful lot of UK reviewers , journalists and critics are suffering from a severe case of US envy when it comes to Dylan’s Nobel Prize . Perhaps before levying such unwarranted criticism it would behove them all to review the words of a certain Mr Harrison and Mr Lennon back in the day when both stated point blank [ and more than once I might add ] that had it not been for Dylan the Beatles would of never evolved beyond being a ‘ pop ‘ band . Suffice it to say with no exaggeration .. when it comes to all Rock post 1965 … all roads lead to Dylan .

      October 17, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        It’s a fair point in general, Slinger, but I’d suggest that very little instrumental rock, some of it very successful (Focus, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, let alone Mike Oldfield and the Krautrock people) owes anything at all to Bob. He was, I’d say, a massively important catalyst for a two or three year period in the middle 60s – single-handedly creating the context in which pop/rock could be music to listen to instead of/as well as music to dance to. Beyond that, he is one artist among many that one chooses to listen to or not.

        October 17, 2016
    • Tim Stanley’s Torygraph essay, as I read it, was comment on the erosion of distinction.

      In this particular case, the distinction under very legitimate consideration is one between literature and not-literature. The current debate is a boundary dispute over where to draw the line. There are those, seemingly the overwhelming majority, who applaud and support the stretching of the boundary so that it includes Dylan. Then there are dissenters, who appear to be the minority (and of which I am one) who disagree with the objective sense of this popular re-categorization. According to its own proffered tokens, why should we not include film as a form of literature, for example? The po-mo perspective of course dissolves all such conceptual divisions by viewing all symbolic product and cultural output as text. There is no Nobel for text, however. So we’re left with the curious Alice-like puzzle of whether what Bob does is literature or not. And for both sides, their answer is a no-brainer.

      No sneering involves itself, neither does any case of US envy play a part, severe or otherwise. To reach for such allegations as polemic strategy though, if you will indulge and forgive the observation. does seem to me like a perfectly fitting Trump-like posture. Which is an amusing provocation of the sort, I think, that connects well with what the Torygraph essay was about.

      October 17, 2016
  4. GuitarSlinger #

    Excellent article . FYI and for the record … Charlotte NC was [ and still is ] known in US vernacular as Charlotte Town as is Charlottesville VA .. both of which were hotbeds for the Civll Rights movement back in the day . Whether or not either was Dylan’s intent only the cosmic chameleon knows for sure 🙂

    October 17, 2016
  5. John Evans #

    It has been strangely pleasurable listening to lots of old Dylan albums in the knowledge that so many other people have been doing exactly the same since the Nobel announcement. My own choice of listening has included a quite a bit of ‘compare and contrast’ (live performances versus studio originals of particular songs), and the thing that has struck me more forcibly than ever before is Dylan’s absolute mastery of the art of phrasing. I hope the Nobel award will encourage more people to listen to his recordings, because I think people will be missing the point if they buy a book of printed lyrics and treat them as spoken-word poetry.

    October 17, 2016
  6. Paul Crowe #

    Another wonderful piece, Richard, which I cannot imagine anybody but yourself writing.

    As for “guilty pleasures” mine must be Planet Waves. It is seldom acknowledged in retrospective articles on Dylan’s work. Rick Danko’s bass playing an additional bonus.

    October 17, 2016
  7. Tim Adkin #

    Dylan did briefly revive “Barbara Allen” circa 88 as an acoustic duet with the estimable GE Smith. Although only played a handful of times some are of the view that this version surpasses the aforementioned early 60s version.

    October 18, 2016
    • He certainly did. I heard them do it at the NEC. I don’t think it surpassed the Gaslight but it was pretty bloody amazing.

      October 20, 2016
  8. This is from a thesis written on ‘Barbara Allen’ in 1957:

    “Barry reports an eight stanza version trom Maine which has retained the essentials of Percy’s but not the exact form. The singer was not sure whether Scarlet or Charlotte Town was the form sung by her mother. In this version it is the tolling of the bells which bring on the fit ot laughter and Barbara laughs again in the following stanza…’

    The full thesis can be found here:–riley-1957.aspx

    My guess is Dylan either heard this version direct or acquired it from one of his friends like Paul Clayton, who was well known for having unusual variant versions of well known songs.

    October 19, 2016
    • Thank you for the link to the thesis. I’m going enjoy reading it.

      October 20, 2016
      • Recently came across a mention of a review you had done of a concert in Edinburgh featuring Duncan Browne and Lou Reed. Wondered if you had any memory of this gig and, in particular, of Browne. Have been listening to his first two albums quite a lot recently…

        February 22, 2017

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