A traditional 17th-century English ballad gets a 21st-century update thanks to singer Rosanne Cash. The celebrated performer and songwriter — who will be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on Sunday — lends her voice to the folk tale of “Barbara Allen,” contributing a gently rendered version of the familiar tune to the soundtrack of the upcoming romantic comedy Big Stone Gap.
Written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, the film is based on Trigiani’s best-selling 2000 novel of the same name, the first in a four-book series set in the real-life Virginia coal-mining town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. The film, which stars Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman and Jane Krakowski, takes place in the late Seventies and tells the story of lifelong Big Stone Gap resident Ave Maria Mulligan (Judd), who makes deliveries from her family’s pharmacy to her neighbors and also directs the town’s Outdoor Drama festival. Big Stone Gap marks Trigiani’s writing and directing debut for the big screen.
In addition to countless recorded versions by Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, among others, “Barbara Allen” has a long and varied history in feature films, having been heard in everything from the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol to 1993’s Academy Award-winning The Piano. The first known reference to the song is believed to be a 1666 entry from British naval administrator and famed diarist Samuel Pepys. Although versions of the song vary and can often be quite lengthy (Dylan’s live rendition from 1962, for instance, was over eight minutes), it is essentially the mournful tale of a woman who scorns a dying man who has professed his love for her. She regrets her actions and dies, heartbroken, and is buried next to the man.
This isn’t the first time Cash has recorded a traditional folk ballad. In 2000, she was featured on the Songcatcher soundtrack doing “Fair and Tender Ladies.” Her 2009 LP, The List, inspired by her father Johnny Cash giving her a list of 100 essential country songs, featured her version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” which itself was inspired by Dylan’s exposure to traditional English folk songs.
The original music for Big Stone Gap was composed by Cash’s husband, John Leventhal, and the film’s trailer features Cash’s 1981 pop-country hit “Seven Year Ache,” which leads off the soundtrack. Other artists featured on the Lakeshore Records soundtrack include bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, Joe Smiddy and the Reedy Creek Boys, Michael Trigiani and If Birds Could Fly. The film and its companion album will both be released October 9th.