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The Story Behind the English Folk Song "Scarborough Fair"

"Scarborough Fair": The Overview 

"Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English folk song from the Middle Ages, referring to an old fair in Scarborough, Yorkshire. It is a market fair, comprising of traders, merchants and other vendors that started sometime in the 14th century until the 18th century.

Dry herbs

Dive Deeper Into the Story of This English Song: 

The music of the folk song is characterized by extensive harmonies and rising melodic lines. The purpose here was to develop a sensitive setting, akin to the story behind it. The song opens with acute melancholy, then turns into a wonderful association of smooth harmonies and counter-melodies.

The lyrics of Scarborough Fair puts forward the concept of unrequited love. The yearning is felt throughout the song, creating a perfect medieval love story in the process. A young man delegates certain impossible tasks to his lover with the condition that she would have to finish those to be able to come back to him. Consequently, the lady also requests equally impossible things from the man, with the condition that she would complete her tasks when he would complete his.

The popularization of Scarborough Fair today is due to rock & roll greats Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who were introduced to it by Martin Cathy, a British singer. The song was then re-written with a song of theirs, ‘Canticle’ and its popularity rose due to its anti-war lyrics during the Vietnam war period. Added fame was brought by its presence in the Dustin Hoffman movie “The Graduate” in the year 1967, considered as one of the greatest films of all time. The tune is also audible in Simon & Garfunkel’s other compositions, such as "Mrs. Robinson".

The song was most certainly not composed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as it predates them by hundreds of years. Numerous versions of lyrics apart from the Simon and Garfunkel version, exist. One of the versions has the young man asking his lover to sew a cambric seamless shirt, which is simply not feasible because cambric was a light fabric utilized for making lace and needlework. Subsequently, we have the search for a dry well to wash the shirt. The lady’s tasks for her lover include finding an acre of land between sand and sea, to plant peppercorn in it after plowing with a ram’s horn, crafting of a leather sickle with peacock feathers, etc. Absurd as they may sound today, such elements were well-received centuries past.

About Its Lyrics

A number of theories surround the song lyrics, especially the cooking spices - rosemary, sage, thyme, and parsley. Three of the most popular ones are as follows:

  • Some experts theorize that the song is meant as a riddle for the composer’s lover.
  • The young man is dead as the four herbs of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme were once associated with death.
  • The four herbs are ingredients for a love potion used by witches in medieval times.

The mention of the herbs could also be simply to accommodate a line forgotten over time, thereby not really meaning anything in particular. However, the herbs, nonetheless, had serious associations back in the day.

Parsley was a symbol of evil and sorcery. Further associations have also been made with hell. Sage is thought to bring the blessings of a long life and possible immortality. There is also a reference to it warding off the effects of the evil eye. Rosemary is a great element of love and relationships. As such, it is the primary ingredient of love potions and eliminates love problems. Thyme, the final herb, is of an ethereal significance, believed to get you in touch with fantastic creatures and apparitions. A solid bringer of luck and exuding good vibes, it would also assist in searching for one’s true love.

Scarborough Fair is an example of a medieval outlook toward love and adventures. Though the author of the piece will never be found, we can assume that he had a penchant for all things strange and magical. Indeed, with the time of its inception, such ideas were encouraged and accepted well. Moreover, the 20th century saw a globalization of this song, thanks to the rock & roll era, where Simon and Garfunkel immortalized it.

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