"Barbara Allen" is a ballad that has been sung for three centuries, at the very least, in all parts of the British Isles and Eire. Its wide diffusion throughout the United States, and the endless variety of melody and lyric found, are evidence that it was brought to the colonies in the earliest days.
The version reproduced here comes from Scotland, and is given to us from the family tradition of the great Scottish folk singer, Ewan MacColl. It has been included here, from the hundreds of American and British versions that might have been chosen, for a number of reasons. Sir John Graeme, in the first place, is shown as a flesh-and-blood man who fought a duel and died for love. This is much truer to life than the common and generally accepted version of "a spineless lover who gave up the ghost without a struggle." In the second place, MacColl's melody is, in this editor's judgment, among the most perfect that we inherit. And finally, melody and lyric combined provide a classic example of the great and passionate art of the ballad at its best.