Scarborough Fair – Piano

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Scarborough Fair (ballad)

"Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English ballad (existing in more than one version) that hangs, in some versions at least, upon a possible visit by an unidentified person (the "third party") to the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. The song implies the tale of a man who instructs the third party to tell his former love, who lives in said fair town, to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making for him a shirt without a seam and no needlework and then washing it in a dry empty well, adding that if she were to complete these tasks he would take her back into his affections. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her sometime lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt and her heart 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 about the Great Plague of the late Middle Ages. The lyrics of "Scarborough Fair" appear to have something in common with an obscure Scottish ballad, "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2), collected by Francis James Child,[1] which has been traced as far back as 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").

The melody is in Dorian mode and is very typical of the middle English period.

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 the traditional English fair, "Scarborough Fair" and the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" date to 19th century versions and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, (Child Ballad #1), which has a similar plot. A number of older versions refer to locations other than Scarborough Fair, including Wittingham Fair, Cape Ann, "twixt Berwik and Lyne", etc. Many versions do not mention a place-name and are often generically titled ("The Lovers' Tasks", "My Father Gave Me an Acre of Land", etc.).


As a popular and widely distributed song from 1946 to 1968, the song had many versions. The one here, intended as a duet by a man and a woman, includes the place after which it is named:

Male part:

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

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Where never sprung 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.

Female part:

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 peppercorn,
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's 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.

Alternative refrains

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". Slightly more recent 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
  • Yesterday holds memories in time

These are usually paired with "Once (s)he was a true love of mine" or some variant. "Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" may simply be an alternate rhyming refrain to the original based on a corruption of "grows merry in time" into "rosemary and thyme".

Commercial versions

The earliest commercial recording of the ballad was by actor/singers Gordon Heath and Lee Payant, Americans who ran a cafe and nightclub, L'Abbaye, on the Rive Gauche in Paris. They recorded the song on the Elektra album Encores From The Abbaye in 1955.[2][3][self-published source?] Their version used the melody from Frank Kidson's collection Traditional Tunes, published in 1891, which reported it as being "as sung in Whitby streets twenty or thirty years ago", or about the 1860s.[4][self-published source?]

The song was also included on A. L. Lloyd's 1955 album The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, using Kidson's melody. The version using the melody later used by Simon & Garfunkel in "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" was first recorded on a 1956 album, English Folk Songs, by Audrey Coppard.[4][5] It was included by Ewan MacColl on Matching Songs For The British Isles And America (1957), by MacColl and Peggy Seeger on The Singing Island (1960), and by Shirley Collins on the album False True Lovers (1959).[2][4][6][self-published source?] It is likely that both Coppard and Collins learned it from MacColl, who claimed to have collected it "in part" from a Scottish miner. According to the Teesdale Mercury and Martin Carthy's daughter, it emerged that researcher-musician MacColl wrote a book of Teesdale folk songs after hearing Mark Anderson sing in the late 1940s. The book included Anderson's rendition of a little-known song called "Scarborough Fair". However, according to Alan Lomax, MacColl's source was probably Cecil Sharp's One Hundred English Folk Songs, published in 1916.[6][7] The melody in 'One Hundred English Folksongs' is not that used by MacColl or later artists.

In April 1966, Marianne Faithfull recorded and released her own take on "Scarborough Fair" on her album North Country Maid about six months prior to Simon & Garfunkel's release of their single version of the song in October 1966.[8][user-generated source?]

Simon & Garfunkel version

Paul Simon learned the song in London in 1965 from Martin Carthy,[9][10] who had picked up the tune from the songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger[11] and included it on his eponymous 1965 album. Simon & Garfunkel set it in counterpoint with "Canticle" – a reworking of the lyrics from Simon's 1963 anti-war song, "The Side of a Hill",[12] set to a new melody composed mainly by Art Garfunkel.[11][13] "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" 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.[11] 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.[11] This rift remained until Simon invited Carthy to perform the song with him as a duet at a London concert in 2000.[11] Simon performed this song with The Muppets when he guest starred on The Muppet Show.

Before Simon had learned the song, Bob Dylan had borrowed the melody and several lines from Carthy's arrangement to create his song, "Girl from the North Country",[14] which featured on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Nashville Skyline (1969) (together with Johnny Cash), Real Live (1984) and The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993).

Chart performance

Chart (1968) Peak
Australian Kent Music Report 49
Irish Singles Chart 5
UK Singles Chart[15] 9
US Billboard Hot 100 11

Other recordings*

Israeli version

The Israeli poet and songwriter Yaakov Shabtai created a Hebrew-language adaptation, named "Be'Simtat Ha'Tutim" (בסמטת התותים "On Strawberry Lane") which named no specific geographical location but retained the original dialogue of the lovers and their impossible demands of each other. Sung by Dani Litani and Sandra Johnson, it had considerable success in Israel.[19][20]


  1. ^ Child, Francis James (1894). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Part 9. 9. Boston / Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and company / The Riverside Press. p. 206.
  2. ^ a b Rosemont, Dick. "The Originals Project". Retrieved 29 September 2016.[self-published source?]
  3. ^ "Gordon Heath & Lee Payant Discography". Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  4. ^ a b c Rypens, Arnold. "The Originals". Archived from the original on 4 August 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2017.[self-published source?]
  5. ^ "Smithsonian Folkways". Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution. 20 March 2013. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  6. ^ a b Grant, Stewart (15 September 2009). "Even More Roots of Bob & Notes About Some Other Kind of Songs". Humming a Diff'rent Tune. Archived from the original on 28 February 2012. Retrieved 27 May 2017. Originally published November 2006 at[self-published source?]
  7. ^ Sharp, Cecil J. (1916). "One Hundred English Folksongs". Oliver Ditson & Co. Retrieved 29 September 2016 – via
  8. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "North Country Maid - Marianne Faithfull | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 September 2016.[user-generated source?]
  9. ^ "Sold on Song - Song Library - Scarborough Fair". BBC. Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c d e Humphries, Patrick (2003). "Scarborough Fair". Sold on Song. BBC. Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  12. ^ "Song and Lyrics, Scarborough Fair/Canticle". Sony Music Entertainment. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  13. ^ Bennighof, James (2007). The Words and Music of Paul Simon. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 21–24. ISBN 9780275991630. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  14. ^ JK. ""...She Once Was A True Love Of Mine" - Some Notes About Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country"". Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  15. ^ "Official Charts Company - Simon And Garfunkel". 21 July 2012. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  16. ^
  17. ^ "WWCE-31357~9 | Phantasy Star Nova Original Soundtrack - VGMdb". Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  18. ^ "'Deus Salve o Rei': confira o clipe da música de abertura da nova novela das sete". Gshow (in Portuguese). Rio de Janeiro: Grupo Globo. 10 December 2017. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  19. ^ Online Hebrew lyrics of "Be'Simtat Ha'Tutim" [1]
  20. ^ Youtube recording of "Be'Simtat Ha'Tutim" [2]

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