Ballads—that is, long songs that tell a story—first came to North America in the earliest European colonies, and they played a crucial role in the daily life of those communities. For European audiences, ballads provided entertainment; they also reported the latest news and sometimes told tales with a moral or religious lesson.
However, there was never a final version of any ballad. As each one was passed on from singer to singer, usually by word of mouth, it could be changed to suit the new singer and a new audience. Performers might alter a ballad to fit their own singing voice, or to reflect their own political views, or to make fun of the people of the next village down the road. A ballad is always a work in progress, and it is this flexibility that has kept ballads alive to the present day.
No one knows exactly when the ballad of Bonny Barbara Allan arrived in the New World, but we do know that people have been singing it for more than 300 years. Today, there are dozens of very different versions being sung across the United States, all of which still tell a timeless story of love and death.
This version of Bonny Barbara Allan was probably published in the early 19th century. The Library of Congress has more than a dozen versions in its digital collections, including both instrumentals and vocal performances, with many variations in lyrics and even in spelling. Listen and see what differences you notice between the different versions, and ask yourself why they might have changed.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (Colonial Settlement)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Colonial America)