by Garrett Sawyer
Simon and Garfunkel's exquisite "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" sounds so perfect, so meticulously arranged you'd never guess the song has multiple sources.
The song actually coalesced beginning with an old English folk ballad and ending with an obscure song Simon wrote which was thrown into the pot.
Let's start with Scarborough, a seaport town in North Yorkshire, England.
The good Lord only knows who wrote it first but some minstrel hundreds of years ago wrote a ballad which drawls on for numerous verse about a young man instructing the listener to go to the singer's former lover and direct her to perform a list of absurd tasks (such as make a shirt without seams and wash it in a dry well).
If she does these ridiculous feats he will take her back.
The herbs mentioned in each verse represented personal traits. Parsley stood for comfort. Sage meant strength. Rosemary represented love. Thyme symbolized courage.
This kind of symbolism was common in those days; the Shakespereans among you may remember Ophelia's words in "Hamlet" ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember").
The "fair" of the title refers to a popular gathering that would start each August 15th and last 45 days, attracting visitors from all over England.
Fast forward a few hundred years. Simon is living, traveling and performing in England in 1965. While in London he learns the song from English folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy.
It was around this time that Simon recorded a solo album with no accompaniment except his guitar, vocals and a little foot tapping, released as "The Paul Simon Songbook".
On it you will find a song called "The Side of a Hill" by someone named "Paul Kane", one of Simon's pseudonyms. This quiet antiwar song went absolutely nowhere but the lyrics were to lay dormant, not dead.
Now it's a year or two later and Simon and Garfunkel are household words thanks to their number one hit "The Sound of Silence".
For their next trick Simon reworked the arrangement he learned from Carthy while Art Garfunkel worked out a counterpoint (the "Canticle" part). The lyrics to "The Side of a Hill' were reworked into the counterpoint and, presto!
Simon wasn't the only one to benefit from Carthy's work. Loyal Bob Dylan fans are right to observe that Dylan sang part of this first in 1963 in "Girl From the North Country", which contained the lyric, "Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine".
And I normally don't bother mentioning cover versions or other versions of songs because there are so many but I'm going to make an exception here.
In 1968 Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 recorded "Scarborough Fair" again but changed the time signature to standard 4/4 (instead of Simon and Garfunkel's 3/4 version) with Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel singing lead and a gorgeous, dreamy jazz arrangement complete with a fabulous Wurlitzer electric piano solo.
Of course, it's irrelevant whose version of "Scarborough Fair" you adore: Simon and Garfunkel's, Bob Dylan's or Sergio Mendes'.
The song hits home no matter who's singing it. But I must confess I'm partial to the S&G version. Now, alas, if I could only learn to play Simon's guitar part properly ...
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