Colonial American “folk songs” are most often rooted in the musical traditions of either the British Isles or of Africa. From the British Isles come ballads, a storytelling songwriting tradition based in the Medieval period. Settlers to the “New World” would bring popular folk songs, like the ballad “Barbara Allen,” across the sea with them. There is evidence (through the study of old journals) that this song was popular in Scotland and England as early as 1666. Its popularity in America to this day suggests that it was well received in the early colonial days. Ballads exploring themes of sexuality and relationships, especially through feminine eyes, were popular in the Colonial era. Simply, these issues were relevant to colonists. Traditional songs about chivalry or courtly affairs, on the other hand, died out quickly in the New Word.
Ballads were rarely written down, but were instead meant to be sung by memory. This makes “Barbara Allen” and other early ballads a significant part of the oral tradition amongst American colonists. This tradition has clearly been successful–hundreds of versions of “Barbara Anne” have been recorded over the years, including recordings by such artists as Art Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and Dolly Parton. It continues to be a popular and well-known song in both Britain and the United States, exemplifying the unbreakable cultural ties between the two areas.