Barbara Ellen Escapes to Yorkshire

June 16, 2012

Last year, at Miles of Music Camp, I wrote snippets of songs, danced by the moonlight on the dock, and rediscovered a love of music and performing that had been buried under the weight of parenthood, work, and adult responsibilities.  At the start of the week, my kids went fishing, and DH sulked around a little bit, but by the end of the week, they were 100 % into the swing of things.  Grace had started to play the guitar, and came up with the weirdest skit you could possibly imagine.  I made new friends whose openhearted example helped me see that there’s no particular reason for me to hide my affection for music (not even my tendency to miss the pitch now and again.)

Fast forward 12 months to June, 2012. New jobs for me and for Bill.  Two new bands to play with, and all four of us playing music all the time.  This time around, I had to leave camp two days in to head back to work, but DH threw himself into the music (and into the lake) with ruthless abandon. Abigail abandoned fishing and took up baking, under the tutelage of an awfully generous baking mentor in the camp kitchen.  Grace not only wrote a song but also recorded it with the assistance of a real-life superstar artist and engineer.

I wasn’t there long enough to get into the thick of things, but I did get one nugget stuck in my craw (or my ear, or my brain, depending on how you think of it.)  In one class, the teacher introduced us to his version of the classic ballad “Barbara Ellen,” and showed us about 10 zilliion ways to play it. His version was jaw-droppingly sad and beautiful. Still, for whatever reason, I zoomed straight past the ostensible purpose of the song (to memorialize a young man’s death from heartbreak) and wanted to write the thing from the perspective of the eponymous villain.

So, even though I had to miss most of camp to get back to my work, I spent my commutes all week humming the tune, and imagining a fate for Barbara a little less dire than having her heart grow into a briar.  Original lyrics here, for those of you who don’t know the song, and mine follow.  Ignore the weird spacing on the second stanza.


I Once Was Barbara Ellen (or, Bury my Name)

In Scarlet Town where I was born,
Where all my kinfolk were a dwelling
Where I grew from a girl to the fairest of maids,
And where they called me Barbara Ellen (Ellen, they once called me Barbara Ellen)

When all the suitors came to call.

Mother warned me, often musing,

“You’re a girl to be wooed, not a prize to be won,

“Guard your heart, you do the choosing.”  (Choosing, guard your heart, and do the choosing)

Once came a servant to my door,
“Barbara Ellen,” he was crying,
“My master has asked me to bring you to him
For without you he’ll be dying” (Dying, all for your love he is dying.)

Slowly, slowly I got up
I didn’t know what house to go to
And the only words I could think of to say,
“Oh young man, I hardly know you” (Know you, oh young man, I hardly know you)

But early morning in the town
I heard the death bells loudly knelling
Surrounded by strangers who once were my friends
All were blaming Barbara Ellen (Ellen, all were blaming Barbara Ellen)

No one ever asked my tale,
Every tongue against me wagging,
And Lord, I did feel like a stranger to myself
When they spoke of Barbara Ellen (Ellen, when they spoke of Barbara Ellen)

Oh Mother, Mother, dig a grave
Dig it low, and long and narrow
Fill a coffin with stones, have them bury my name
For I’ll steal away tomorrow (Tomorrow, Oh I leave this town tomorrow.)

Later on I heard my fate
From a traveling singing liar
Said the boys’ heart had grown to a red red rose,
And from mine had grown a briar (Briar, a red red rose and a briar)

Far away from Scarlet Town
Where next May the rose’ll be swelling
I won’t ever be tied to a man I never loved,
I’ve left behind old Barbara Ellen (Ellen, left behind old Barbara Ellen.)



Shawna June 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Nice, strong woman version Launa.

GailNHB June 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

Glad you had a chance to hang with the singing crew – even if only for a short while.

I can’t wait to hear details about your new job… intriguing.

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