This lp, issued by The Library of Congress in their series “Folk Music of The United States”, compiled 30 different versions of the old ballad “Barbara Allen” as sung by american men and women in the 1930’s, in different Southern states but also in California. The recordings were made by Alan or John Lomax and other folklorists who worked for The Library of Congress at this time. Some tracks are complete versions of the song while others just give to listen one or two stanzas. The first versions are all sung a cappella and use a beautiful modal and archaic melody (used for other ballads as well). By the middle of the record and until the end, we hear different variations of the most-well know “Barbara Allen” melody using a major scale while the guitar is introduced on some tracks. The lp ends with a rare african-american version of the ballad sung by Moses (Clear Rock) Platt, recorded at The Central State Farm in Sugarland, Texas in 1933. Most of the singers here were recorded “in the field” and are not well-known with the exception of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Aunt Molly Jackson and Horton Baker.
Hearing different versions of the same ballad (on my blog dedicated to “Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music” , The Old Weird America, you can hear for each post, different version of the same song or tune) is always interesting as it seems everyone bring something a little different to the same story, varying some words or notes, and of course, the singing style or type of performance can vary a lot from version to version. (It is said that Harry Smith could tell from which county you were by singing to him your version of Barbara Allen!).
The lp includes a big booklet written by Charles Seeger (father of Pete, Mike and Peggy) which study in depth the performances of the disc. To read it, click here.
-As a bonus, here’s Jody Stecher’s version, which appear on his great cd of ballads “Oh The Wind and Rain” (You can buy it directly from Jody’s website). I think this version of “Barbara Allen” is a real masterpiece. For more than 12 minutes, Jody sings with his powerful voice, with a fretless banjo accompaniment and manage to shift from the major scale melody to the modal melody heard on the first selections of the lp in the middle of his performance. The shifting itself from one scale to another is very subtle and sounds very natural and make this version one of my favorite of the old ballad.