“Scarborough Fair” is a traditional English ballad about the small town of Scarborough, Yorkshire, on the North Sea coast of England. The “Scarborough Fair” was a popular gathering in Medieval times, which attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. It lasted 45 days, starting every August 15th.
In the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a resort town.
Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history.
In Medieval England, this ballad, whose author is unknown, became a popular folk song as Bards used to sing it when they travelled from town to town.
The lyrics are about a young man who instructs the listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, saying that if she can perform them, he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover another series of equally impossible tasks.
The earliest commercial recording of the ballad (1955) was by two American actor/singers who ran a café and nightclub in Paris. Then in 1966, Marianne Faithful recorded her “Scarborough Fair” about six months before Simon & Garfunkel’s release.
Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer who later accused him of stealing his arrangement
Simon & Garfunkel set it in counterpoint with “Canticle” , and the two songs are sung simultaneously to create this piece
Lyrics and folksong refrains containing enumerations of herbs (spices and medical herbs) occur in many languages. Maybe, they were just put there as a place holder, as people forgot what the original line was.
Anyway herbs were the equivalent to flowers today, full of symbols. Here they represent virtues the singer wishes his true love and himself to have, in order to make it possible for her to come back again.
Parsley can be used to treat indigestion. frequently referred to as “heartburn” since it makes the chest hurt. This feeling often led people to believe that their heart hurt. Thus, parsley was prescribed to heal the hurting heart, to take away bitterness.
Sage was symbol of strength.
Rosemary represented love, faithfulness, and remembrance. In the Middle Ages, rosemary was associated with wedding ceremonies: brides would wear a few sprigs of it in their hair on their wedding day. It also had a reputation for improving memory: ancient Roman doctors used to put rosemary under the pillow of someone who had to perform a difficult mental job. Shakespeare’ s Ophelia says , “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” (Hamlet, iv)
Thyme symbolized courage.
In pagan belief these four herbs were used together in a tonic of some sort, as a love charm or to remove curses.
Another theory suggests that the four herbs symbolize a complex love riddle compiled by a spurned lover who wanted to woo the lady back through their hidden meanings:
• parsley: I’m yours
• sage: I’m dependable
• rosemary: Remember me
• thyme: I want you to bear my children
This song was not released as a single until 1968, when it was used in the Dustin Hoffman movie “The Graduate”