I once taught a summer camp session for fifth graders about how "old-school" ballads were really the tabloid articles of their day. We focused on this song:
In Scarlet town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwelling
And every youth cried well away
For her name was Barbara Allen
We listened to it, we read it aloud, we acted it out.
Twas in the merry month of May
The green buds were a swelling
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen
Then I challenged them to write tabloid headlines based on the story. What would they say? What details would the story linger on? Which would be omitted?
He sent a servant unto her
To the place she was dwelling
Saying you must come to his deathbed now
If your name be Barbara Allen
We talked about the time period when ballads like these were created. No television, newspapers, or radio existed. There were no telephones or even reliable mail service. A traveling musician was the way many news stories were spread.
Slowly slowly she got up
Slowly slowly she came nigh him
And the only words to him she said
Young man I think you're dying
I thought it was a brilliant lesson. I thought it was a great success at making something old come alive and be relevant. Perhaps it was. Too much so. When we were done the students said, "That was creepy."
I've never repeated the lesson.
As she was walking oer the fields
She heard the death bell knelling
And every stroke it seemed to say
Hardhearted Barbara Allen
Most of the time our lives are ordinary. We have challenges and trials, yes. We have sad days mixed in with the happy, but most days are ordinary. And we don't mind that. Sometimes our worlds are threatened by national or international disaster, or a local weather occurrence that brings our usual existence to a standstill.
Oh mother mother make my bed
Make it long and make it narrow
Sweet William died for me today
I'll die for him tomorrow
It is truly rare for us to experience something that might be fodder for the tabloids. And that is a very good thing. Tabloids (and ballads) thrive on earth-shattering, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking stories. These are not the stories we want to live.
They buried her in the old churchyard
They buried him in the choir
And from his grave grew a red red rose
From her grave a green briar
This weekend many of us relived a loss which is the stuff of ballads. We all responded in our own way: some in writing, some in praying, some in living even more purposefully, some in silence. As the day came to a close yesterday, I saw a photograph of a dandelion posted by a friend with the caption, "Make a wish."
And suddenly this tune began to play within my head. It took me a while to realize why. When I awoke this morning it was still with me.
They grew and grew to the steeple top
Till they could grow no higher
And there they twined in a true love's knot
Red rose around green briar