Story of a song: Scarborough Fair

There are a lot of songs and music pieces in the world history which have their own very interesting stories of creation: some of them were inspired and influenced by other famous pieces and that is noticeable once more attention to the melody is paid; others are famous but not in the original version which might be very different from the one we know.

One of my favorite songs and a good example of such a piece with story is a song called “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel and first of all I should mention that it’s not actually and completely their song though I prefer this particular version, but, as it can be noticed from the melody, it’s a folk song which also means that the author is not known. It’s known that in 18th century there were so many versions of the lyrics of this song that it can’t be counted and the moment of it’s birth is long ago forgotten.
So I will start from the… middle.

The orchestral version and the lyrics from Wikipedia below:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true lover of mine.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without a seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Where never spring water or rain ever fell,
And she shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,
Then she shall be a true lover of mine.
Now he has asked me questions three,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
I hope he’ll answer as many for me
Before he shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell him to buy me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And sow it all over with one pepper corn,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell him to sheer’t with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And bind it up with a peacock feather.
And he shall be a true lover of mine.
Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
And never let one corn of it fall,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.
When he has done and finished his work.
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme:
Oh, tell him to come and he’ll have his shirt,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

In the 18th century the song was representing several problems of an unknown man (storyteller) who, talking to the listener, asks him if he goes to Scarborough Fair. In the medieval times there, in a town called Scarborough,  were huge fairs before they’ve found there some mineral waters (in the 17th century) and the situation changed as it became a resort town. So, going back to the subject, the storyteller asks to pass his once beloved lady a list of impossible things to do. If she makes it, he says, everything can be fine again and she is allowed to come back to his arms.

Scarborough fair

Some medieval fair

If trying to analyze the lyrics as a lot of us did for the literature lessons at school it gives the following sense: the True Love might require making impossible and only if it is The True Love the impossible things could be somehow made. In the refrain there are 4 herbs mentioned: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. In the medieval times herbs had much more significant meaning than now (flower language for example) and it might be so that the singer talks in such a way respectively about happiness (as an absence of “sadness, bitterness”), strength, love and bravery.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Another very interesting option can be found in Wikipedia. According to it women who just gave birth to a child were not supposed to eat this herbs as, according to some sources, it might cause the absence of milk. So maybe there’s also some bastard involved which makes the whole story even more thrilling!

Scarborough fair

Poor baby bastard

Third option, also very possible, is that these herbs were used for making love potions (medieval times, witches, potions…). Anyway now it’s difficult to find the truth as even those who were singing it 3 centuries ago, I suppose, were not sure what they are singing about.

As I mentioned before, there were a lot of different versions of lyrics wide spread. One of those was meant to be sang by two: Him and Her and, obviously, they were exchanging (using that very listener) those impossible tasks, so I guess that was not requiring a happy ending for them anyway. Though, again, in medieval times life was different and loving a Beautiful Far Away Dream Lady was even more honorable than dreaming about having kids and working in a little medieval shop together, for example.

So it looks like we’re near the end and got the point but no! As I mentioned above, in the 18th century Scarborough was already a resort town, which is a hint to dig deeper as the famous fair was there but in earlier centuries. And, digging deeper, one might find that the song is supposed to be based on the older one, a Scottish ballad about an elfin knight.

The Celtic -style version:

In my imagination Scotland is a mysterious and beautiful land but according to this song the situation is even more interesting: Scottish elves are, probably, ugly (not Orlando Bloom in the “Lord of the Rings” obviously) as some Scottish maid is so much refusing to marry one of them that she gives him that very list of impossible tasks. On the other hand, though ugly, Scottish elf is an honorable elf who proposes her instead of taking her by force.

Scarborough fair

The Ugly Elf

Also, going deeper, it appears that the line with the herbs might be something completely different and that some singer with bad memory had simply changed the line just to keep the rhythm and rhyme when he forgot the original version. Here are the possible options:

Sober and grave grows merry in time;
Every rose grows merry with time;
There’s never a rose grows fairer with time

– all these lines make sense (if thinking about the ugly elf and his beloved) much more than parsley and poor bastard suffering without his mother’s milk.
But, returning to the very beginning, to Simon and Garfunkel and our days. In 1967 the song had it’s second birth as it became a soundtrack to the movie “Graduate” when Paul Simon delicately and gently added there the second voice which is hidden between the first voice and the guitar and which sings the lyrics from the other Paul’s song “The Side of a Hill” written some time earlier. As a result the song became three dimensional both in it’s melody and meaning.

There’s an amazing comment to one of the videos of this song somewhere on YouTube: “The song was written 600 years ago. Can you imagine how surprised could the author be if somebody told him that we’re still singing it, here it 21st century?”

Simon and Garfunkel’s version with lyrics in the video:

Another versions and covers also appeared after that, here’s the list of several bands and singers in different genres which might be interesting. And all of them can be found on YouTube:
Gregorian (the cover of the Simon’s version);
My Dying Bride (nice metal version);
Scooter (techno style);
Sarah Brightman;
Bobby McFerrin (yep, that who sings “Don’t worry, be happy”, jazz version);
Euroboys (rock, punk).

And the list may be continued as there are dozens of them.

P.S. All pictures used in this material were found in the internet and belong to their owners.

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