Continuing our examination of Art Garfunkel’s Seventies output, one song at a time.
Is it any surprise that a man who named his album after a character in Tess of the d’Urbervilles would devote five minutes and twenty-five seconds of it to a song at least three centuries old?
Art Garfunkel is, if nothing else, fond of the classics.
(Which reminds me of a sidetrack I’ve not pursued in earlier entries: I’ve never read Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I wonder if the book and the album share any themes, and what Art’s choice of title character signifies. I could whistle up some high-level nonsense based on the Wikipedia entry, but that feels like cheating — like basing your essay on Cliff’s Notes.)
Anyway, the next-to-last track on Angel Clare finds Art revisiting some familiar themes.
“Barbara Allen,” among other things, is another love-and-death song; another song cut by the Everlys on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us; and, like “Feuilles-Oh,” another song demoed by Simon & Garfunkel but not released until many years later.
It is, according to Wiki, the most-collected song in the English language. Apparently there’s a Library of Congress album compiling 30 different versions recorded in America between the 1930s and 1950s. A barrel of yucks, no doubt, and perfect for your next house party.
If you’ve managed to avoid all those different versions, the plot goes something like this: Barbara’s spurned suitor dies of lovesickness, which saddens her so greatly that she decides to die also. Other details vary — Art’s version has (SPOILER ALERT) a posthumous twist ending — but that’s the nuts and bolts of it.
Courtly, cobwebby stuff, yet also current enough for 1973, the year that made “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” a Number One hit.
Art puts more vocally into “Barbara Allen” than he put into “Down In The Willow Garden,” and the arrangement helps keep things interesting. In particular, a couple of cool dissonances written into the strings keep me tuned in.
The song is a touch longer than I might have liked, and it’s not in a style that usually turns me on — I don’t usually care for anything with the must of antiquity upon it. Still, by and large, “Barbara Allen” is done well enough to support repeated listening, and even to earn Art a solid placement among the countless other singers who have tackled the song.
With the exception of “She Moved Through The Fair” on Watermark, Art would not venture into Ye Greate Anglo-Saxon Songbooke again in the Seventies; more contemporary affairs would occupy him.
That was probably the right choice, both artistically and commercially, but “Barbara Allen” showed there was still something to be found in the classics.