Don Edwards Literary Memorial

April 1, 2010

Get Real Elizabethan Ballads

LeRoy, I was thinking about our classes at St. Mary’s College when we were both literature majors.  You may recall that at the time  I fell in love with Elizabethan ballads like “Barbara Allen” and “Dinah and Villikins”.  In some of my recent research I have found that there are Appalachian versions that survive to this day.

Anyway, I accepted the lyrics of these lovely songs without much question when I was 18 years old.  Considerable living experience has forced me to reevaluate some of them for credibility.

Take Barbara Allen, for example.  It seems a young man named “Sweet William” is dying of a broken heart.  He sends his butler to fetch Barbara, the apparent cause of his affliction.  She takes her own sweet time getting there, but when she sees him, she confirms to this lovesick young man that he, indeed, looks like crap. He makes a huge strategic blunder.  He tells her that it is her fault he is sick.

If William is considering some kind of reconciliation, this approach is not calculated to be one of the top three.  Sweet William doesn’t know his ass from his elbow about women.  Women like fancy talk, especially in Elizabethan England.  Barbara wants to hear something like “Wherefore the sweet nectar of thy ululations, you saucy wench,” rip off his tunic and perform all manner of gymnastics on her exquisite body.

Instead, with all his whining, she of course looks at him as if he were road kill in Arkansas.  Her eyes narrow and she reminds him that he toasted all the girls in the pub and “slighted” her.  We never know the real reason for Barbara’s animosity, but given the nature of Queen Elizabeth’s time, he probably nailed every fair maiden in the pub except her.   He says that he can only get well if she will take him back. She is thinking “spineless, groveling weasel.” She probably tells him to do something anatomically impossible, but in the expurgated version of the song, she says, “Young, man I’ll not have you,” and leaves.  Sweet William continues to whine and weep as she walks out the door, posterior swinging to a secret tune she is internally whistling.  William isn’t so Sweet now.  He wails, “Adieu to me, Adieu to all and Adieu to Barbara Allen.” One suspected all along that he was a French fop, probably wearing lacy shirt cuffs, and this confirms it.  Though the song doesn’t say so, I am sure that Barbara sashayed down the walkway and headed home in a very upbeat frame of mind.

On the way she hears the church bells signaling that Sweet William is dead and the chiming seems to say that she is “hard hearted,” that she should have forgiven him.  The lyrics say that she tells her mother that she feels really bad about that whimpering simp, William, somehow concludes that she is a rotten bitch and mom should get her coffin ready because she is going to kill herself.  The final stanza says she dies and is buried next to Sweet William. A rose comes out of his nerdy little grave and a briar out of hers and they tie a lover’s knot at the top of the church steeple.


There is no way in the world that this babe is going to kill herself.  She skipped and whistled all the way home, had a good life and never again gave Sweet William a second thought except to smile a secret smile whenever his name came up in the pub.  She knew that he actually died of advanced syphilis from his orgy at the tavern the night he “toasted all the ladies fair and slighted Barbara Allen.”

“Villikins and Dinah” is a ballad where the lovely damsel also kills herself.  As you can plainly see, women don’t fare very well in these songs.  She does this because her father wants her to marry a rich jerk, but she looooooves a guy named Villikins, a “lazy young lout” according to her father.  But she knows he is a really good kisser and says she will give up her fortune if she can remain single for awhile.  She kills herself over love of this guy.  The moral of the ballad is that it is “better by far to die and grow cold than marry a suitor for silver or gold.”

Again, pleeeeeeeeeease!

Do you think in a thousand years I would offer this advice to any of my daughters?  Do you think they would take this advice if I offered it?  The real story goes something like this: Dinah marries the rich guy who, being “gallant and gay,” goes off in search of adventure, jousting and merry making, gone all the time.  So Dinah gives Vilikins the key to her back door.  End of story.  Everybody wins.  Hubby frolics with pub wenches, probably often with Ms Allen, and brags about slaying a dragon or two. Dinah and Villikins frolic whenever they please.

I have come to the conclusion that should have lived in Elizabethan times.  With my get-real lyrics, women would have loved me.

Filed under: DON POSTS — Don @ 4:18 pm

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