Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scarborough Fair/Canticle

Get out your 12 string guitars. Girls, heat up the iron, put your long hair on the board and have your best girlfriend iron it so you get that Mary Travers silky straight-hair look.

It’s folk music time and Uncle Marcie is gonna’ learn you all about all about Scarborough Fair.


It’s actually referred to as the Scarborough Fair Canticle on Simon and Garfunkle’s album.


Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle arrived on the scene long after the Folk Music Scare of the early 1960’s. And although they were not a part of the folk music scene, they wre steeped in it. Their minds had already been poisoned under the influence of Gutherie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk and the like.

Their first hit record, "Sounds of Silence" was recorded as a folk song with just their voices and a guitar. They then went off to promote the record. But unbeknownst to them, the records production company added bass, drums and an electric guitar to their simple recording. It changed the song from folk to rock. They became pop/rock artists and didn't even realize it.

While off in the UK to promote Sounds of Silence, Paul Simon learned this British folk song called Scarborough Fair then came home to record it.

There actually was a Scarborough Fair and amazingly enough it was in the village of Scarborough in the eastern sea side of Britain.

The fair was an annual fair for merchants from Britain, Europe and neighboring countries such as Denmark, Norway and the Byzantine Empire nations to show off their wares. The fair started on August 15 an lasted 45 days. In 1253 King Henry III granted a charter to Scarborough to have the yearly fayre. We would now call this a convention or a tradeshow or perhaps ScarboroughCon.


Of course such event had to be celebrated and sung about by minstrels. FYI, Minstrels were the prototype for American Idol and all such shows, however they were less talented and smelled funny.



Our ballad in question tells the story of a bonny young lad and a wee slip of a lassie bickering with each other. And here you thought it was a sweet ballad.

Yep. The laddie is telling the girl to do these impossible tasks, make a cambric shirt without any seams or needle work and then wash it in a dry well. Once she does this he will be her true love.


So what’s a cambric shirt you say? Cambric is an old term for plainly woven cloth.

Anyway getting back to our young couple, the girl ain’t havin’ none of his sass. Talk to the hand she says. And she then sings to him, “Bubba, you go find me and acre of land between the saltwater and the sea strand, plow it with a sheeps horn and sow it with seeds of peppercorn. Then reap it with a sickle of leather. And see how you like that hotshot. Then You can be a true love of mine.” That's how the original reply verse went, which is longer than the Simon/Garfunkle version.

But you can see what I mean about the bickering. As a folk song this is usually sung by a man and a woman taking the respective verses but since Simon and Garfunkle being manly men they changed some of the words that addressed the young man to find the land and plow it up. Bein' city boys they eliminated the planting of the peppercorns and reaping of the harvest. These tasks became the woman's job. It is a small wonder the women libbers didn’t get all uppity about the lyric changes as done by S&G.

Now most folks will tell you the song is about a young man that was jilted by a girl and he is telling her she need to do all these impossible tasks to win him back. Why would she? After all, she dumped him. And I don't blame her. This lad was off to the fair and din't even have the courtesy to invite her or bring her back a funnel cake. S&G sang it from the boys point of view, but the old folkies from the other side of the pond sang it with the boy/girl verses. That version makes more sense to me since there are a lot of folk songs with this pattern.

So what’s the deal about the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme? Were they corporate attorneys? Is this a song about cookin’? Whatever could this mean?

Simmer down children and let Uncle Marcie do some ‘splainin’.

From the modern herbalist website we learn that;

Thyme: Girls once used thyme sprigs in ceremonies to discover the identity of their true loves. A more upscale lady of Medieval times would embroider a flowering thyme sprig along with a visiting bee as a token to be given to a favored knight. A woman wearing thyme was once held to be irresistable.

Sage: Sage was once used to help childless couples conceive, and is associated with wisdom and longevity in plant lore. It was also used magically to honor weddings and to ensure domestic harmony.

Rosemary: Was once held to represent love and faithfulness. The plant was used in wedding ceremonies in place of rings as a sign of fidelity, and carried by newlyweds and wedding guests as a charm for fertility. But it also has the meaning of remembrance, as Shakespeare noted in Hamlet 'there's rosemary for remembrance.' Often used in love potions, it is also said to attract elves. (Why would you want elves running amok in your home?)

Parsley: It was once believed that only witches and pregnant women could grow this herb--Sow parsley, sow babes, was an old expression. The herb has been associated with witchcraft in England and also with death since ancient times. But more importantly, it is said to provoke lust and love.

So what the singers are saying is:

Thyme: I'm yours.

Sage: I'm dependable.

Rosemary: Remember me.

Parsley: I'm horny, I want to make babies with you.


You see parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme were not ingredients for vegetable soup, these were the secret blend of herbs and spices used to make Love Potion #9.

So what is a Canticle? Well a canticle is a song that is usually based on a Biblical story or a poem.
In this case while Garfunkle, who has such a sweet voice, sang the verse, Simon sang sort of a counter-melody with different lyrics.




Are you going to scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(on the side of a hill in the deep forest green)
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
(tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground)
Without no seams nor needlework
(blankets and bedclothes a child of the mountains)
Then she'll be a true love of mine
(sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell him to find me an acre of land
(on the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsely, sage, rosemary, & thyme
(washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand
(a soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then he'll be a true love of mine Tell him to reap it in a sickle of leather
(war bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions)

Parsely, sage, rosemary & thyme
(generals order their soldiers to kill)
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
(and to fight for a cause they have long ago forgotten)
Then he'll be a true love of mine

Are you going to scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.

Ok, let’s set the context of the era that S&G made this song popular. It was 1969 or 1970. We were in the midst of the Viet Nam War.


Now you chillun’ probably do not understand the feeling of the country in those days. Every night on the 6 o’clock news we would see film of the bodies of young soldiers being carried through the jungles of Viet Nam by their buddies. This sent a collective chill down the spines of average Americans and embittered us. It didn't do much for the guys over their doing their patriotic duty either.

Back in those days there was no volunteer army. All 18 year old boys were required to register for the draft which equated to a death sentence. You might wind up being sent home from 'Nam in a box. Many young men left their families and citizenship and moved to Canada or South America to seek refuge from forced enlistment.

Viet Nam was this tiny country in Southern Asia that no one gave a rip about. It was full of tiny people that became proficient at digging tiny tunnels to hide from the US troops. In the daytime, the Vietnamese were cabbies, barkeepers, barbers, farmers and shopkeepers. At night they became Viet Cong and would slit your throat without even blinking. Young Americans blamed the politicians and the large companies the produced munitions for getting us into this debacle. They were very vocal in the protests of the war. It was a sad, sad time in the world, this nation in particular and thus was reflected in our music.

So the Canticle part of the song,
Blankets and bedclothes on the side of a mountain.
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call.
She washes the grave with her silvery tears.
A soldier cleans and polishes his gun.
War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions.
Generals order their soldiers to kill.
To fight for a cause that they have long ago forgotten,
this part of the song really hit home during that era, especially since it was somewhat hidden. It was seen as a war protest song. During those times protest songs were very, very popular.


We all love to find hidden meanings. I hope you’ve learned a few today.


As I have said actual folk
song is much longer than the verses S&G sing, however AM radio usually only allowed songs to be two and a half minutes long. In order to be a hit, it had to be whittled down. And all most of us had back then was AM radio.

Simon, Garfunkle and Williams

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt4HZ7AKp1s

1 comment:

Celestial Elf said...

Wonderful Post.
I thought you might enjoy machinima film about the folk song Scarborough Fair http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0b0AcCtnVo
along with my speculative conjecture that this may have arisen from Spencer's Faerie Queene
http://bit.ly/zl4P2L
Best Wishes.