Scarborough Fair

19 Jul

Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history: in the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a popular holiday resort. Long before this, however, it hosted the ‘Scarborough Fair’ – a popular gathering in Medieval times, which attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the Medieval period, this fair gave its name to a popular folk song that became widely known as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the original song is unknown, and today many different versions exist, the best known of which is probably the one by Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer named Martin Carthy. The traditional version has many more lyrics, some of which are quite sinister and replete with mythological associations.

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In the original song a girl hears the far-off blast of the elfin’s knight horn and wishes he were in her bedroom. He straightaway appears, but will not consent to be her lover until she answers a series of riddles. This trait of test-by-riddle is a heritage from remote antiquity. The survival of this ancient piece of folklore is assured by the fact that all the couplets in this song contain gentle, but evocative erotic symbols. In Medieval times, the herbs mentioned in the song represented virtues that were important to the lyrics. Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love, and thyme was courage. Folklorists and students of plant mythology are well aware that certain herbs were held to have magical significance—that they were used by sorcerers in their spells and conversely as counter-spells by those that wished to outwit them. The herbs mentioned in the refrain of Scarborough Fair also are all known to have been closely associated with death and also as charms against the evil eye.

All sorts of other theories abound as to what the song is truly all about. There are those who say that Scarborough Fair is a version of a much older Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight, in which the main characters are a demon and a maid.  The demon sets impossible tasks and on the maid’s replies depends whether she will fall into his clutches or not. Since the ballad involves the exchange of impossible tasks, this has given rise to the the hypothesis that it is about the Great Plague of the late Middle Ages. As to why the location of the song was transplanted to Scarborough, a possible explanation is that this is a hint from the singer to his lover, telling how she went away suddenly without warning or reason. Scarborough was known as a town where suspected thieves or other criminals were quickly dealt with and hung on a tree after some form of street justice. This is why a ‘Scarborough warning’ still means ‘without any warning’ in today’s English. This would also account for the absence of any suggestion of a reason for her departure, which could mean either that the singer doesn’t have a clue why his lady left, or perhaps that these reasons are too difficult to explain and he gently leaves them out.

Whilst it is likely that Scarborough Fair would always have been well known in parts of England in which the old folk songs and customs are celebrated each year, its popularity across the world today is almost certainly in large part due to Simon & Garfunkel. 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. As for what its lyrics truly mean, despite all the theorising, this remains in many ways as much of a mystery today as it has always been: “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme / Remember me to the one who lives there / For once she was a true love of mine.”

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5 Responses to “Scarborough Fair”

  1. Nienna July 19, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    Fascinating. I always though it was about a message from a ghost to the damsel he loved in earthly life.

  2. elfkat July 20, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Reblogged this on Adventures and Musings of an Arch Druidess.

  3. charlespaxton July 20, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Reblogged this on Charles's Weblog and commented:
    I always liked this song, here is some interesting background information

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  1. Anilbalan’s Ghost Cities: New post Scarborough Fair | Hugh Paxton's Blog - July 19, 2015

    […] Scarborough Fair […]

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