History of the Folk Song 'Scarborough Fair'

Simon & Garfunkel Made It Famous, But It Dates Back to Medieval Times

Simon and Garfunkel - 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' Album Cover
Simon and Garfunkel - 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' Album Cover. © Sony

"Scarborough Fair," popularized in the United States by the 1960s singer-songwriting duo Simon & Garfunkel, is an English folk song about a market fair that took place in the town of Scarborough in Yorkshire during medieval times. Like any fair, it attracted traders, entertainers and food vendors, along with other hangers-on. The fair peaked in the late 14th century but continued to operate until the end of the 1700s.

Now, several fairs are held in remembrance of the original.

'Scarborough Fair' Lyrics

The lyrics for "Scarborough Fair" talk about unrequited love. A young man requests impossible tasks from his lover, saying that if she can perform them, he will take her back. In return, she requests impossible things of him, saying she will perform her tasks when he performs his.

It's possible that this tune was derived from a Scottish song called "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad No. 2), wherein an elf kidnaps a woman and tells her that, unless she can do these impossible things, he will keep her as his lover.

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

The use of the herbs "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" in the lyrics has been debated and discussed. It's possible that they were just put there as a place holder, as people forgot what the original line was. In traditional folk music, songs grew and evolved over time, as they were passed down through the oral tradition.

That's the reason there are so many versions of so many old folk songs, and possibly why these herbs have become such a prominent part of the verse.

However, herbalists will tell you of the symbolism and functions of herbs in healing and health maintenance. There's also a possibility that these meanings were intended as the song evolved (parsley for comfort or to remove bitterness, sage for strength, thyme for courage, rosemary for love).

There's some speculation that these four herbs were used in a tonic of some sort to remove curses.

Simon & Garfunkel's Version

Paul Simon learned the song in 1965 while visiting British folk singer Martin Carthy in London. Art Garfunkel adapted the arrangement, integrating elements of another song Simon had written called "Canticle," which in turn was adapted from yet another Simon song, "The Side of a Hill."

The pair added some anti-war lyrics that reflected the times; the song was on the soundtrack of the movie "The Graduate" (1967) and became a huge hit for the pair after the soundtrack album was released in January 1968. The soundtrack also included the Simon & Garfunkel hits "Mrs.Robinson" and "The Sound of Silence." ​

Simon & Garfunkel gave Carthy no credit on their recording for the arrangement of a traditional folk song, and Carthy accused Simon of stealing his work. Many years later, Simon settled the issue with Carthy, and in 2000 they performed together in London.