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Scarborough Fair

"Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English fair, as well as a traditional English ballad.

The fair

During the late Middle Ages the seaside resort of Scarborough was an important venue for tradesmen from all over England. It was host to a huge 45-day trading event, starting August 15, which was exceptionally long for a fair in those times. Merchants came to it from all areas of England, Europe, Norway, Denmark, the Baltic and the Byzantine Empire. Scarborough Fair originated from a charter granted by King Henry III of England on 22 January 1253. The charter, which gave Scarborough many privileges, stated "The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following". (On the modern Roman Catholic calendar, the equivalent dates are August 15 to September 29.) Naturally, such a large occasion attracted a lot more than just tradesmen; they needed to be entertained and fed, therefore large crowds of buyers, sellers and pleasure-seekers attended the fair. Prices were determined by ‘Supply and demand’, with goods often being exchanged through the barter system. Records show that from 1383 Scarborough’s prosperity slumped.

In the early 17th century competition from other towns' markets and fairs and increasing taxation saw further collapse of the Fair until it eventually became financially untenable. The market was revived again in the 18th century, but due to intense competition Scarborough Fair finally ended in 1788.

The traditional 'Scarborough Fair' no longer exists but a number of low-key celebrations take place every September to mark the original event. Scarborough Fair in July 2006 witnessed Medieval Jousting Competitions, hosted by English Heritage in addition to the usual attractions.

The ballad

The song tells the tale of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished.

As the versions of the ballad known under the title "Scarborough Fair" are usually limited to the exchange of these impossible tasks, many suggestions concerning the plot have been proposed, including the hypothesis that it is a song about the Plague. In fact, "Scarborough Fair" appears to derive from an older (and now obscure) Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight (Child Ballad #2), which has been traced to at least 1670 and may well be earlier. 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").

As the song spread, it was adapted, modified, and rewritten to the point that dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century, although only a few are typically sung nowadays. The references to "Scarborough Fair" and the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" date to nineteenth century versions, and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, (Child Ballad #1), which has a similar plot.

Lyrics

BOTH

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she/he once was a true love of mine.

MAN

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Without any seam nor needlework,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Which never sprung water nor rain ever fell,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Ask her to do me this courtesy,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And ask for a like favour from me,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

BOTH

Have you been to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me from one who lives there,
For she/he once was a true love of mine.

WOMAN

Ask him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the salt water and the sea-strand,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

Ask him to plough it with a lamb's horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And sow it all over with one peppercorn,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

Ask him to reap it with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And gather it up with a rope made of heather,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

When he has done and finished his work,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Ask him to come for his cambric shirt,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

BOTH

If you say that you can't, then I shall reply,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Oh, Let me know that at least you will try,
Or you'll never be a true love of mine.

Love imposes impossible tasks,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
But none more than any heart would ask,
I must know you're a true love of mine.

Media

Meaning of the refrain

Much thought has gone into attempts to explain the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme", although, as this is found only in relatively recent versions, there may not be much to explain. 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" (or variations thereof), which may reflect the original emphasis on the lady's chastity. Slightly younger versions often contain one of a group of related refrains:

  • Sober and grave grows merry in time
  • Every rose grows merry with time
  • There's never a rose grows fairer with time

These are usually paired with "Once she was a true love of mine" or some variant. "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" may simply be an alternate rhyming refrain to the original. Folksong scholar Märta Ramsten states that folksong refrains containing enumerations of herbs — spices and medical herbs — occur in many languages, including Swedish, Danish, German, and English.

Other proposed explanations

On the other hand, elaborate theories have been proposed concerning the possible symbolism of these herbs, some of which are outlined below. When evaluating these theories it should be borne in mind that the earliest extant versions of the original The Elfin Knight ballad date to some 100-150 years after the end of the Medieval period, and the earliest version known to bear the "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" refrain is from the very late 18th century; thus any "medieval" symbolism would most likely have to have been introduced by later singers rather than being preserved continuously since the Middle Ages.

In "Scarborough Fair" the herbs may be a veiled message for the girl where the man is explaining why she should come back to him (if she overcomes the five impossible tasks):

Parsley, used to this day as a digestive aid, was said to take away the bitterness, and medieval doctors took this in a spiritual sense as well. Sage has been known to symbolize strength for thousands of years. Rosemary represents faithfulness, love and remembrance, and the custom of a bride wearing twigs of rosemary in her hair is still practiced in England and several other European countries today. Thyme symbolizes courage, and during the medieval era, knights would often wear images of thyme on their shields when they went to combat. The speaker in the song, by mentioning these four herbs, wishes his true love mildness to soothe the bitterness that is between them, strength to stand firm in the time of their being apart from each other, faithfulness to stay with him during this period of loneliness and, paradoxically, courage to fulfill her impossible tasks and to come back to him by the time she can.

Also, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are possibly the ingredients of a love spell from the Middle Ages, even though the refrain did not exist in the medieval version of the song.

Another theory considers the possible magical significance of the herbs. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme have allegedly all been closely associated with death and used as charms against the evil eye. In The Elfin Knight (of which Scarborough Fair is a version), an elf sets impossible tasks to a maid, and her replies determine whether she will fall into his clutches or not. Francis Child suggested that the elf was an interloper from another ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, and that he should rightly be a mortal man, but as Ann Gilchrist points out, "why the use of the herb refrain except as an indication of something more than mortal combat?". Sir Walter Scott in his notes on Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border recalled hearing a ballad of "a fiend ... paying his addresses to a maid but being disconcerted by the holy herbs she wore in her bosom", and Lucy Broadwood goes so far as to suggest that the refrain might be the survival of an incantation against such a suitor (which would fit well with the plot of "The Elfin Knight").

Contrary to current hearsay, none of the herbs listed in the song are contraceptive or abortifacient plants — they are simply very common culinary herbs.

The refrain and the whole ballad may be the common pick up line: "We're here for a good time not a long time". Medieval peoples were simple folk but literature of the time suggests they had great wit particularly in the pursuit of love. By cheekily suggesting to an attractive passer by that you had a true love and suggesting she had the Time to do all these impossible tasks, the singer is sending the impetuous message that love lies in wait and there is no time to waste. All versions of the refrain seem to emphasize things that last forever in contrast to the opportunity at hand. Modern exulted versions of the song emphasize an altruism that probably was out of place in rustic medieval times.

Once again, it must be noted that all of the possible alleged symbolism above is strictly conjecture, especially since the "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" refrain was not introduced until the late 18th century, many centuries after the Middle Ages were over.

Simon & Garfunkel version

The arrangement made famous by Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" originated in the late 20th century. Paul Simon learned it in 1965 in London from Martin Carthy and Art Garfunkel set it in counterpoint with Canticle, a reworking of Simon's 1963 song "The Side of a Hill" with new, anti-war lyrics (this was how Garfunkel claimed any authorship). It 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 duet the song with him at a London concert in 2000.

Prior to Simon's learning the song, Bob Dylan had borrowed the melody and several lines from Carthy's arrangement in creating his song, "Girl from the North Country," which appeared on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Nashville Skyline (1969), Real Live (1984) and Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993).

Justin Hayward version

Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward kept true to the lyrics of the song, in his 1989 album Classic Blue. He recorded this with Mike Batt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sarah Brightman version

Sarah Brightman's cover of "Scarborough Fair" appears on her 2000 album La Luna. Her version was also released as the lead off single from the album. Though she omits most of the lyrics that are given above, the lyrics that do still remain in her shorter version of the song are reproduced accurately above within the longer version.

Track listing

  1. "Scarborough Fair"
  2. "La Luna"
  3. "She Doesn't See Him"
  4. Track 2 is credited as "La Luna" but it is actually the track "Hijo de La Luna" also from her La Luna album.

Other artists

Other artists who have performed the song include but are not limited to: Delfonics, Vicky Leandros (who also recorded a French, German and Greek version), Brian Klauss (on his self-produced album Folksinger), Hannah Fury, Gregorian, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Wes Montgomery, Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Nana Mouskouri, Queensrÿche, Martin Carthy, Marianne Faithfull, Harry Belafonte, Roger Whittaker, Frank Underwood, Midori, Medwyn Goodall, The Mighty Boosh, Johnny Dean, Urban Trad, the Mediaeval Baebes, Triniti, Hayley Westenra (with Celtic Woman), One More Grain, Bert Jansch, K.I.A., Luar na Lubre, Steve Von Till (under his Harvestman moniker), Mägo de Oz (whose Spanish version carries the title "Duerme... (canción de cuna)"), Aya Matsuura, the Italian singer and composer Angelo Branduardi and, most recently, a young Japanese artist named Yuki Otake (whose version starts each stanza with the English lyrics, most of which are listed above, and then finishes with a Japanese translation).

Lesley Garrett performed a traditional / Celtic style version of the song, with male background vocals on her 2002 album The Singer.

In 2005, the Austrian early music ensemble Quadriga Consort released a Renaissance consort song style version.

In 2008, Simon Rylander produced a multi-track album that featured an eight-part barbershop-style arrangement of this song. His many barbershop tags are featured on YouTube under the name FineyLeee.

The Philadelphia folk band Broadside Electric recorded a version, "The Six Questions," on their 1992 album Black-edged Visiting Card, derived from original research into the song's source material. This version features both male and female vocals singing the impossible tasks as a conversation between the star-crossed lovers, and a closing fugue based on the refrain "Sing ivy leaf, sweet william and thyme."

Roy Harper recorded a version called "North Country" on his album, Valentine, which he credited as Traditional-arr by Harper. Roy has gone on at great length about the fact that North Country existed as a traditional folk song for decades before Bob Dylan recorded it and hence Harper's refusal to acknowledge Dylan as the writer on his cover version. When Valentine was released Dylan threatened legal action because the song wasn't credited to him. Nothing ever happened.

Two interpretations of Scarborough Fair: "Scarborough Street Fair" and "Michael's Scarborough Fair" (an instrumental), appear on the soundtrack to the adult animated film Heavy Traffic, along with the Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 version.

It also seems to have heavily inspired the Stone Roses song "Elizabeth My Dear", whose melody is very similar.

In British comedy series "The Mighty Boosh" the character Vince Noir is reminded of a time when he and a friend, Leroy, sang this song while in make-up similar to the Band KISS. The song was not a success and this is attributed to the fact that no one will ever be ready for the 'glam rock/folk' combination.

The song was also recorded by the Dutch band Brainbox. Sea Level, the Allman Brothers Band offshoot formed by Chuck Leavell, Jai Johanny Johanson, Lamar Williams and Jimmy Nalls recorded an instrumental version on their 1977 debut album. It was also recorded by British singer Amy Nuttall from her debut album Best Days. Carly Simon included the tune on her 2007 album Into White. German techno group Scooter also covered the song in 2007, on their album The Ultimate Aural Orgasm.

Hannah Fury has recorded her own version, a 'soul-shredded' version called Scars. It features lyrics that are twisted in some way. An example is the opening verse:

Please don't go to Scarborough Fair
Violets, roses, thistles and vines
Remember me, I am still here
He was not a true love of mine

Electronica artists The KGBs have done a version called "Infinity", featured on the Hardstyle Techno compilation Italian Hardstyle 9 by DJ TechnoBoy It features a typical Hardstyle beat with a crossfade of the first two verses looped over and over.

Recently, the Dutch Pagan NeoCeltic Folkband Omnia published a somewhat darker version of the song on their newest album — Alive! (2007), titled "The Elven Lover". Part of their lyrics:

"Tell her to weave it on unicorn bone
parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme...
and dye it with the blood of old stone
if she would be a true love of mine..."

Trivia

  • In the Anonymous Rex series of books by Eric Garcia, the main characters (who are all heavily-evolved dinosaurs) are addicted to common herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. As main character Vincent Rubio comments, for them, "Scarborough Fair" is the ultimate drug song.
  • The traditional carol "We Three Kings" holds the same meter as "Scarborough Fair", with slightly different syncopation. The two songs can be sung to each others' tunes.
  • While the version of the melody depicted above is in a minor key, some versions are in Dorian mode, recognizable by the raised 6th tone (the "RY" of "Rosemary" in "parsley, sage, rosemaRY and thyme...").
  • Besides the many things the "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" symbolized above, many use this set of herbs in spaghetti sauce.
  • A version of this song was used on The Muppet Show, featuring Paul Simon. In it, Miss Piggy sang the "parsley sage rosemary and thyme" part, as her character in the fair scene was apparently hocking it (i.e., selling the herbs to get out of debt.)
  • Some versions of the song begin "Where are you going..."
  • In Futurama, "Cylon and Garfunkel" sing this song in a benefit concert for broken robots.
  • The song appears briefly in the 2003 movie "Lost in Translation," when Bill Murray is at the bar. It is performed by Catherine Lambert.
  • In the Sangreal Trilogy (by Jan Siegel), a version of the Elfin Knight legend is used to motivate the character of Caliban. The Scarbarrow is a hill that would open on certain nights of the year and the fairyfolk would steal the souls of the dead. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are herbs to shield the graveyard inhabitants from the charms of the fae.
  • The theme for Kagome from the anime series InuYasha contains portions of the melody of "Scarborough Fair."
  • The first verse of Scarborough Fair appears in The Mighty Boosh Series 1 episode 7: Electro as the song of Vince Noir and Leroy's GlamFolk band.
  • In the online RPG Kingdom of Loathing, Sauceror characters are labeled as "Parsley Enchanters", "Sage Sages", "Rosemary Diviners", and "Thyme Wizards" in levels 3, 4, 5, and 6 respectively.
  • In the Homestar Runner Strongbad E-Mail "do over", Strong Bad hits Homestar over the head with a keyboard while saying "Don't you ever dress up as The Cheat again! Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme!".
  • An adaptation of the song by Christopher Gunning is the theme song for the TV show "Rosemary & Thyme". The theme is played by John Williams on classical guitar.
  • The song is the inspiration for the novel Impossible (2008) by Nancy Werlin.
  • The song was played several times on the Ralph Bakshi film Heavy Traffic at several different parts of the movie.

External links

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