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.