The Story Behind The Song: Scarborough Fair/Canticle
The Story Behind The Song: Scarborough Fair/Canticle
"Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English ballad. The song lists a number of impossible tasks given to a former lover who lives in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Simon & Garfunkel fans and history buffs alike will be pleased to learn about the story behind how the folk duo, how catapulted themselves to fame in the 1960s and ’70s covering this old English ballad. Although some may have been introduced to the song for the first time by the duo in question, the tune has been around for hundreds of years.

The song’s origin can be traced back as far as 1670, alongside the similar Scottish ballad, ‘The Elfin Knight’. Although the title specifically refers to the location of Scarborough Fair, there have been other versions from throughout the 17th and 18th centuries that used other locations as well. 

You may recognise some of the most famous lyrics, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” which have been nabbed by the likes of everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Lana Del Rey. But it is this track that is the origin of those lyrics. But you might find yourself asking, “How on earth did ’60s folk duo Simon & Garfunkel end up covering this traditional English ballad?”

The answer is actually quite simple. We have British singer Martin Cathy to thank for this iconic cover, as he introduced the song to Paul Simon in London in 1965. Shortly thereafter, he rewrote it to coincide with one of the duo’s own songs, ‘Canticle’, which was itself a reworking of an earlier song that Simon wrote.

One of the reasons for the song’s popularity was its use in the Dustin Hoffman film, The Graduatewhich came out in 1967. Simon & Garfunkel composed the music for the film and provided the soundtrack in full, choosing to feature the song alongside some of their other hits, ‘Mrs. Robinson’, ‘April Come She Will’, and ‘The Sound of Silence’. The film and the album became huge successes, bringing pop culture attention to the song.

Unfortunately, Cathy wasn’t too pleased about the lack of credit for his arrangement on the final recording. About this, Paul Simon later commented, somewhat definatly “The version I was playing was definitely what I could remember of Martin’s version, but he didn’t teach it to me. Really, it was just naivety on my part that we didn’t credit it as his arrangement of a traditional tune. I didn’t know you had to do that. Then, later on, Martin’s publisher contacted me and we made a pretty substantial monetary settlement that he was supposed to split with Martin, But unbeknown to me, Martin got nothing.”

Still, the pair didn’t speak until 2000, when Simon contacted him to do a show together, which they performed and set aside their differences. 

The song, which features lyrics about unrequited love and missed connections, is a somewhat perfect choice for the film in which it ended up. As for the famous spice blend, there are a few running theories on the origin. Some think they serve as a part of a riddle, others theorise that the young man from the song is actually dead as the four herbs mentioned were once associated with death, while some point to them as the ingredients of a love potion. Since the original lyricist isn’t around to explain, we’ll probably never know for sure.

If you want to listen to the song and try to find the classical English roots, you can check the song out right here.

Simon & Garfunkel - Scarborough Fair/Canticle

Read further about the history of the song itself.

Author, educator, musician, dancer and all around creative type. Founder of "The Happy Now" website and the online jewelry store "Silver and Sage".

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