Scarborough Fair


Jon confesses, “This is one of those songs it’s never really occurred to me to learn because it’s so famous. All Around My Hat being another. Unlike All Around My Hat, this is a great song.”

We’ll let the Hat business lie, especially in light of the Bad Shepherds’ version and get straight into this song that is really a variation on Riddles Wisely Expounded ( Child #1) or The Elfin Knight (Child #2) theme. It’s another where the riddle/impossible task element is set to test the lovers suitability or commitment. If you follow those links through you’ll find several variations in the Child collection and interestingly there are two elements of the” Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” refrain that crop up. In one variant of #1 there are the daughters “Jennifer, Gentle and Rosemary” and in #2 “Sober and grave (or every rose) grows merry (bonny) in time.” I mention it as Martin Carthy in his notes (courtesy of Mainly Norfolk) attributes a magical or mystical connotation to the combination of herbs. Whilst that may well be reasonable per-se, it doesn’t necessarily sit in context here. Wiki here for more, but the suggestion is that the well known refrain is a  C19th addition, late in the songs life and of no special significance. As a final note you might want to trawl this Mudcat thread that adds some speculation about the various elements of the song, Scarborough and the fair, with some interesting thoughts as to whether this is actually rather bitter. The truth is we’ll never know for sure, although I don’t suppose it much matters as this is a truly lovely song and I’m guessing instantly familiar to all. Martin Carthy taught it to Paul Simon, Art added the counterpoint: a couple of million Radio 2 plays later, it’s so hard wired that I suspect if you severed one of my limbs, you’d find Simon & Garfunkel written right through. Mind you it’s also interesting to see Ewan MacColl’s name crop up at that end of the song’s story. I’m pleased it made the cut and the concertina adds a melancholy note that resonates through the hopelessness of the tasks…  It quite brings a tear to the eye.



28 Responses to “Scarborough Fair”

  1. Patrick Rose says:

    This is actually the first time I’ve listened to it fully. I’ve always been aware of the S&G version but never actually listened to it.

    I’m fully with you though, I’ve never considered adding this to my list because it is so famous. Might be fun to do at a folk club though.

  2. John says:

    Very nice, Jon. I also like the rather fine recording of this song by The Imagined Village (which includes Martin Carthy) on their recent album ‘Empire & Love’. In fact there are two versions of it on the CD.

  3. johnone says:

    Great I just loved it. Of course I almost knew it from way back and couldn’t resist adding some of my own harmonies along the way. I hope I didn’t disturb anyone!

    But, there again. All Around My Hat made famous about the same era and I loved that as well. I seem to think that it even got in the pop charts when most of it was real crap. I was into the likes of Jimi Hendrix at the time and still am.

    Just a bit of a rave.

  4. LadyD says:

    I prefer Jon’s version….with the bittersweet feel to it. although I can’t hear the tune without thinking of a certain program featuring crime solving gardeners.

  5. John Bryson says:

    A super version of a great song. One of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, Girl from the North Country, is heavily influenced by Scarborough fair, which Dylan recognises.
    Opening up debate a little, I am aware of the Bad Shepherds version of All Around My hat. I have been a Steeleye fan since the 1970’s, but I am in Jon’s camp on this one – I have never warmed to All Around My Hat. Can’t really put my finger on it, but it just doesn’t do it for me – personal taste I presume.

  6. Jane Ramsden says:

    I’m with Jon and John on ‘All Around My Hat.’ I’ve always preferred ‘Scarborough Fair’ and like your slower rendition, Jon, as it gives the listener a different sense of the possible story behind the song. Thanks also, Skyman, for the excellently informative links. Learnt some new things there!

    @ Jon: Yesterday I listened to your Floodplain album (very belatedly as a birthday gift from November!). An absolutely bright clear gem of a work! Superb!

  7. Jan says:

    Nicely sung, and I like the accompaniment, but there’s only half the story here. After the verses about making, washing and drying the shirt, the lady comes in with

    Now he has asked me questions three
    I hope he’ll answer as many for me

    Tell him to find me an acre of land
    Between the salt water and the sea strand

    Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn
    And sow it all over with one peppercorn

    tell him to reap it with a sickle of leather
    And tie it all up with a peacock’s feather

    When he has done and finished his work
    O tthen he can come for his cambric shirt

    Impossible tasks for both parties!

  8. Muzza(s.e.England) says:

    I like Both Scarborough Fair and All around my hat……..both excellent

  9. Phil says:

    John – North Country Girl was a conscious & acknowledged ripoff of SF, which Dylan had recently heard from Carthy. (See also Percy’s Song / The Wind and the Rain.) Folk process, kind of.

    The interesting thing about this song is that, if you look at it the right way, it’s utterly filthy. All the paradoxical images – a garment with no stitches, a dry well with water in, a soft blade, and so on – would have been seen as having double meanings, or so this Mudcat poster argues. Fnarr fnarr. I mentioned this theory to a friend who sings a version of this song a while ago, and he keeps asking me to elaborate – unfortunately he only seems to remember in the middle of singarounds.

    What’s the MacColl connection, btw?

  10. Phil says:

    Oh, and I hate AAMH for the simple reason that it’s the chorus of one song stuck onto the verse of another (Farewell He). That wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily, except that the two songs have completely opposite messages, “I’m saving myself for my true love” vs “he’s gone and good riddance”. It’s a bit like singing the verse of Needle Of Death with the chorus of Fathom the Bowl. (Don’t try this at home, or anywhere else.)

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thanks Jan and Phil. Taught me some more things there!

  12. the_otter says:

    Prefer SF to AAMH, but I still enjoy Steeleye’s version of the latter. It’s so bouncy! I’m bouncing now just thinking about it.

  13. […] Scarborough Fair. Lovely. […]

  14. great fancy dress, gaga fancy dress…

    […]Scarborough Fair « A Folk Song A Day[…]…

  15. Diana says:

    Love this one – have had it on my ipod for yonks now – courtesy of good old iTunes. Jon does an excellent job and when you think he is up against such stalwarts as Simon and Garfunkle, Glen Campbell; from me that’s praise indeed.

  16. Diana says:

    To whom it may concern

    What does “Your comment is awaiting moderation” mean? I don’t recollect seeing this before.

  17. Diana says:


    Why was my comment removed?

  18. Muzza(N.W.Surrey. UK) says:

    @Diana.fear not…you have probably been grabbed by the Gremlins…it happens now and then……it wont be anything personal……perhaps a word that the software doesn’t recognise or has misinterpreted 😳

  19. Diana says:

    Thanks you sweetie – I was beginning to wonder as there was nothing untoward on my comment. Can you see it. 😀

  20. Diana says:

    Well Muzza you were right, the Gremlins have got me – I know not why. I was not rude, I did not swear, it was a perfectly polite and reasonable comment so why it has disappeared into the ether I shall never know. Hope this one survives!

  21. Muzza(N.W.Surrey. UK) says:

    @Diana………..ref your irradicated comment revived above (8:40)……
    It would have been because you mentioned”et al”…his version was absolute rubbish and not fit to be on AFSAD

  22. Diana says:

    I agree with you Muzza his version wasn’t up to scratch at all – so glad you explained that to me – will bear that in mind and not use him as an example again. 😀

  23. Diana says:

    A lovely rendition from Jon.

  24. John Bryson says:

    Interesting reading the old comments from three years back. All Aound My Hat still doesn’t do it for me, Girl From the North Country still one of my favourite Dylan songs.

    More than a month since the return of AFSAD, great to hear these songs again.

  25. Old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Loved it yet again…
    .scar…borrow…fair as Simon and Garfunkel like to sing..
    how cute those lil ol Yanks are!

  26. Linda says:

    Lovely version Jon

  27. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Scar borrow fair…………….lovely

  28. John Bryson says:

    Sitting here in a hotel in blustery Stratford on Avon ( did the RSC bit last night) looking at what I wrote 12 years ago. Still agree with my comments from then, but it makes you wonder where the time goes – bit of a Fairport Convention plug for a song there

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