Scarborough fair – Part 1

This song appears to have been sung for ages

Scarborough fair – Part 1

In recent times there are many recordings of pop concerts to be seen on television, often preceded by a documentary about the performing artists. That is how I got to watch one about Simon and Garfunkel, followed by the 1981 concert in Central Park, New York. Wonderful, all this youthful enthusiasm, lovely songs, sung clearly. Unexpectedly my attention was drawn towards the sensitive Scarborough fair , a song that had already struck me at the time by its simple, melancholic melody, but also by the enigmatic lyrics. I started searching the internet and I found a multitude of versions and interpretations. One version was unexpectedly profound.

Simon and Garfunkel  [1] shortened the original lyrics and also intertwined them with a Canticle, written by Paul Simon, a protest song against violence of war, specifically the Vietnam War in which the US took part in the 1960’s. In spite of the shortening by eliminating a number of verses, with this intertwined song they have added an important element: the contrast between the opposites of earthly existence was sharpened.

Scarborough fair  [2] appears to have been sung for ages; many versions of this very ancient song appear to be related to an even older song, The Elphin knight, that contains similar elements. The exact age of the song is unclear, but very probably it was sung in the fifteenth century already, by itinerant minstrels. Wikipedia offers the version below as the most complete.

What strikes us immediately, is that it is written as a duet, and in first reading it can be interpreted as a love song. An imaginable young man asks a favour of the listener, who is on his way to Scarborough fair. The listener is being asked to speak to a girl who lives there and remember her to the young man; she once was his true love, and she will be so again if a series of extraordinary tasks can be completed. The girl replies that the young man must also complete some tasks, and when all is done, they will be re-united. But the lyrics contain too many incomprehensible or impracticable tasks to be just a simple love song. Let us try an interpretation.


Young man:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Remember me to the one who lives there,

For once she was a true love of mine.


Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Without any seam or needlework,

Then she shall be a true love of mine.


Tell her to wash it in yonder well,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Where never sprung water or rain ever fell,

And she shall be a true love of mine.


Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Which never bore blossom (fruit) since Adam was born,

Then she shall be a true love of mine.











Now he has asked me questions three,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

I hope he’ll answer as many for me,

Before he shall be a true love of mine.


Tell him(her) to buy me an acre of land,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Between the salt water and the sea sand,

Then he shall be a true love of mine.


Tell him to plough it with a ram’s/lamb’s horn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

And sow it all over with one peppercorn,

And he shall be a true love of mine.


Tell him(her) to reap it with a sickle of leather,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

And gather it all in a bunch of heather

And he shall be a true love of mine.


Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,

And never let one corn of it fall,

Then he shall be a true love of mine.


When he has done and finished his work.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme:

Oh, tell him to come and he’ll have his shirt,

And he shall be a true love of mine.


The italic couplets are sung by Simon and Garfunkel.

Scarborough, a harbour town in York on the east coast of England, isn’t just a harbour: it’s a borough on the North sea, a meeting place, where also springs a well, although that isn’t mentioned in the lyrics. In the late Middle Ages it is a coming and going to and from destinies over sea: an end station and a starting point of a new journey. The girl will be present at a fair, held once a year, a meeting place, which ends with a feast. What feast will she celebrate? And what should we think of such demanding lovers?

The almost impracticable tasks are reminiscent of the stories of the grail knights, or Herculean works, and getting into the symbolism of the tasks in Scarborough fair, we can find a more profound meaning here as well. The song might, for instance, relate to two people, but it could also represent the two aspects of the personality, the masculine and the feminine aspect, that is the active and the passive, the creative and the receiving side.

The girl receives a threefold task: she must make a cambric shirt, wash it in a dry well, where never sprung water or fell any rain, and dry it on a thorn which never bore blossom since Adam was born.

The name cambric offers a first indication: it is a more or less transparent fabric, and its name is said to be derived from a thirteenth century linen weaver named Baptiste (= baptised) de Cambrai, Kamerijk, a town in Flanders, today Belgium. A cambric shirt can be seen as a symbol of a non-material robe, of an ethereal tissue, received at a ‘baptism’. Is this perhaps an indirect reference to the state of halfness, of incompleteness that many people experience when they discover, after repeated efforts, that true happiness cannot be found in this earthly life? People who, often for as long as they can remember, are searching for a more profound, lasting happiness?

The ‘well where never has sprung water or fell any rain’, where can it be found? Here we find reference to the deeply concealed well in our own hearts, the well of living water, the remembrance of an old and at the same time new field of life, apart from matter with its contrasts which characterise our existence. A source of power, with which we were once deeply connected, before we chose to connect with a field of much lower vibration, the field that we know through our physical senses.

We can recognise the fruitlessness of the earthly contrasts in the thorn bush where the shirt is to be dried: the temporarily life, earthly bound, the life of duality, of day and night, rich and poor, good and evil, birth and death. The words

which never bore blossom since Adam was born

express the image of the meanwhile recognizable fact that earthly life has developed into a repeated stumble, fall and rise, in which nothing truly blossoms, only temporarily.

To be continued in part 2

[1]  Lyrics of Art Garfunkel Scaborough Fair

[2]  The story behind the English folk song “Scarborough Fair”

History of the Folk Song ‘Scarborough Fair’

What The Lyrics To Scarborough Fair Mean


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Date: October 20, 2020
Author: Winnie Geurtsen (Netherlands)
Photo: BlearyView via Pixabay

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