Scarborough Fair

Composer: Ludenhoff, Martin

Instruments: Guitar

Tags: Folk music Song

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"Scarborough Fair" (Child 2, Roud 12) is a traditional English ballad. The song lists a number of impossible tasks given to a former lover who lives in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. The melody is in Dorian mode and is very typical of the middle English period. It was recorded by a number of musicians in the twentieth century, including the version by the 1960s folk rock duo Simon & Garfunkel.
The lyrics of "Scarborough Fair" appear to have something in common with a Scottish ballad titled "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2), collected by Francis James Child, which has been traced as far back as 1670. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task ("For thou must shape a sark to me / Without any cut or heme, quoth he"); she responds with a list of tasks that he must first perform ("I have an aiker of good ley-land / Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand").
Dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century. A number of older versions refer to locations other than Scarborough Fair, including Wittingham Fair, Cape Ann, "twixt Berwik and Lyne", etc. Many versions do not mention a place-name and are often generically titled ("The Lovers' Tasks", "My Father Gave Me an Acre of Land", etc.).
The references to the traditional English fair, "Scarborough Fair" and the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" date to 19th century versions and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, (Child Ballad #1), which has a similar plot.
The lyrics, as published by Frank Kidson, begin:
"O, where are you going?" "To Scarborough fair,"     Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme; "Remember me to a lass who lives there,     For once she was a true love of mine. "And tell her to make me a cambric shirt,     Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme, Without any seam or needlework,     And then she shall be a true love of mine. "And tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,     Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme, Where no water sprung, nor a drop of rain fell,     And then she shall be a true love of mine."
The oldest versions of "The Elfin Knight" (circa 1650) contain the refrain "my plaid away, my plaid away, the wind shall not blow my plaid away". Slightly more recent versions often contain one of a group of related refrains:
These are usually paired with "Once (s)he was a true love of mine" or some variant. "Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" may simply be an alternate rhyming refrain to the original based on a corruption of "grows merry in time" into "rosemary and thyme".
Authentic recordings of the ballad have been made in the twentieth century, including the following examples:
The earliest commercial recording of the ballad was by actor/singers Gordon Heath and Lee Payant, Americans who ran a cafe and nightclub, L'Abbaye, on the Rive Gauche in Paris. They recorded the song on the Elektra album Encores From The Abbaye in 1955. The song was also included on A. L. Lloyd's 1955 album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, using Kidson's melody.
The version using the melody later used by Simon & Garfunkel in "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" was first sung by Mark Anderson (1874-1953), a retired lead-miner from Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham, England, to Ewan MacColl in 1947. MacColl recorded the lyrics and melody in a book of Teesdale folk songs, and later included it on his and Peggy Seeger's The Singing Island (1960). An audio recording of Anderson's version was never made, although Alan Lomax recorded Mark Anderson singing other songs in 1950.
The first recorded version using the best known melody was on the 1956 album, English Folk Songs, performed by Audrey Coppard. Ewan MacColl, a decade after collecting the song, released his own version accompanied by Peggy Seeger on guitar in 1957 on the LP Matching Songs of the British Isles and America and an a capella rendition another decade later on The Long Harvest (1967).
In 1965, Martin Carthy sang "Scarborough Fair" on his eponymous debut album, after having picked up the tune from the songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
In April 1966, Marianne Faithfull recorded and released her own take on "Scarborough Fair" on her album North Country Maid about six months prior to Simon & Garfunkel's release of their single version of the song in October 1966.
Paul Simon learned the song in London in 1965 from Martin Carthy, who had picked up the tune from the songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and included it on his eponymous 1965 album. Simon & Garfunkel set it in counterpoint with "Canticle" – a reworking of the lyrics from Simon's 1963 anti-war song, "The Side of a Hill", set to a new melody composed mainly by Art Garfunkel. "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" was the lead track of the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and was released as a single after being featured on the soundtrack to The Graduate in 1968. The copyright credited only Simon and Garfunkel as the authors, causing ill-feeling on the part of Carthy, who felt the "traditional" source should have been credited. This rift remained until Simon invited Carthy to perform the song with him as a duet at a London concert in 2000. Simon performed this song with The Muppets when he guest starred on The Muppet Show.
Before Simon had learned the song, Bob Dylan had borrowed the melody and several lines from Carthy's arrangement to create his song, "Girl from the North Country", which features on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Nashville Skyline (1969) (together with Johnny Cash), Real Live (1984) and The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993).