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Scarborough Fair before and after Simon and Garfunkel

A lady at Scarborough Fair
A lady at Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair is a great example of a classic folk song that has been made into popular hit, the version by Simon and Garfunkel now being considered a classic of the genre.

There is much more to this song, however, than their brilliant cover—the song has a long and fascinating history, and there are many other great versions of it, including more than 50 here on 8notes, to enjoy...

Where is Scarborough?

Scarborough is on the east coast of the United Kingdom in the county of North Yorkshire.

Not a fun fair

The ‘fair’ in the title was not a ‘fun fair’, but a trading festival. Scarborough’s had a very long history, beginning in 1253 and being held once a year for six weeks until the eighteenth century. It attracted buyers and sellers from all over England and even continental Europe. The song ‘Scarborough Fair’ can be traced as far back as the 17th century, though its origins may be much earlier.

And maybe not a fun affair either

The song is a series of instructions addressed, via an intermediary, to a former lover.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once 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.

Its lists a number of impossible tasks, for example making a shirt ‘without any seam or needlework’ which should be washed in a ‘dry well’ and to find ‘an acre of land’ between the ‘the salt water and the sea strands [i.e. seashore].’ This may suggest an affair that turned bad or the impossibility of unrequited love.

Why all the herbs?

There are a number of possible explanations for the presence of the herbs throughout the song. They may be a corruption of an earlier version with the lyrics ‘Sober and grave grows merry in time’ or, more prosaically, a simple evocation of the products available at the fair itself.

More intriguingly, each of the ingredients had a particular significance in medieval times: parsley was a symbol of sorcery, sage of long life, rosemary of love and relationships and thyme was believed to facilitate connections to the spirit world. All four were common ingredients in love potions, so the song may even be a kind of recipe.

It didn’t always have the famous tune

The lyrics were sung to a number of different melodies. Two of these are listed in one of the earliest collections that include the song, Frank Kidson’s ‘Traditional Tunes’ (1891). Neither of these bear much resemblance to the version we know today:

Tune 1 from Frank Kidson’s ‘Traditional Tunes’ (1891)

Tune 2 from Frank Kidson’s ‘Traditional Tunes’ (1891)

A different version was collected by Ewan MacColl in 1947 from Mark Anderson, a retired lead miner from Middleton-in-Teesdale. This is the version heard in Simon and Garfunkel’s famous arrangement of 1968:

Simon and Garfunkel's version was not the first cover

There were a number of commercial recordings of the melody before that of Simon and Garfunkel. This included a version on the 1956 album ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, sung by MacColl himself:

And in 1965 folk singer Martin Carthy also released a version, which is of particular significance, since Simon and Garfunkel learned the song from him:

And they are certainly not the last....

Many versions followed, some of which adopted the piece to different styles, including a samba version from Segio Mendes and Brasil in 1968:

And My Dying Bride released a death-doom metal version in 2009:

The song has also appeared frequently on the big and small screen. Most famously, Simon and Garfunkel’s version was used in the 1967 film ‘The Graduate’ starting Dustin Hoffman:

And, of course, we have plenty of versions for you to choose from on 8notes too, including a classic arrangement for more than 50 instruments and combinations of instruments and a longer version by composer Christian Morris.

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