Scarborough Fair is also well know by its other name, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which is taken from the refrain.
It comes from an old tradition of English riddle songs in which the singer asks his true love to perform impossible tasks.
The famous Simon and Garfunkel version of Scarborough Fair makes it sound like a tender love song but the lyrics suggest a harsher tone.
Scarborough Fair lyrics – a riddle song
The Scarborough Fair lyrics may seem strange to modern ears but they are from a long tradition of old English riddle songs which had been popular since at least the Middle Ages.
The singer is thinking of a former lover who lives in Scarborough. He asks a friend who is going to Scarborough Fair to remember him to this former lover who lives in the town.
But why does he want to be remembered?
The nonsense rhymes in Scarborough Fair
The wistful beauty of the melody gives the impression of a deep love song in which the young man may be yearning for a love that is lost to him.
However, the lyrics run contrary to this. They are a series of nonsense rhymes in which the true love will be asked to perform impossible tasks. Only if she performs these tasks will she be his “true love” again.
Clearly, she will not be able to perform these tasks so what is the point of asking her? Is he sneering at her? Is this a kind of medieval brush off along the lines of: “tell her she’ll be my true love again when hell freezes over and pigs start flying?”
Performances of Scarborough Fair
Versions of Scarborough Fair have been around since the Middle Ages and it was one of most popular songs of the folk revival in the 1950s and 60s.
However, it was not widely known outside folk music circle until it was recorded by Simon and Garfunkel in 1966. Their version was then featured on the soundtrack of the Graduate.
More recently, it was recorded by Sarah Brightman who released it on her album, La Luna.
Bob Dylan’s version of this traditional song
Bob Dylan came across Scarborough Fair when he visited England in the early sixties but he never recorded it. Instead, he used it as the inspiration for a new song, Girl from the North Country, which he released on his album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963.
The Scarborough Fair influence is quite apparent, although it is a different song.
He later recorded it again with Johnny Cash and released the new version on his 1969 album, Nashville Skyline.
The original Scarborough Fair and market
Scarborough is located on the North East coast of England and is now a popular seaside resort. In medieval times it was an important market town and staged a massive fair every year which stared in August and ran for six weeks.
The fair attracted traders from all over England and northern Europe.
Scarborough Fair began to decline in the early 17th century and despite attempts to keep it going, it finally closed in 1788.