BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Music
Sold on Song. Classic songs, covers, songwriting and more. Listen Live.

 Full Schedule

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

"Scarborough Fair"
"Martin Carthy"
Martin Carthy

Folk music, by its very nature, was always of the people and by the people.

These were songs that grew out of a tradition a form of oral history passed down the generations by spoken word, or as ballads reproduced on broadsheets. Over time, the songs would gradually change and sometimes they were deliberately altered but the convention was that anyone recording a folk song would credit it as "Traditional, Arranged [Your Name Here]…"

In 1965 Paul Simon was a 24 year-old, happily playing around the UK folk clubs - sometimes earning as much as £20 a week! He mostly performed his own compositions, but one traditional folk song which made an impression on him was "Scarborough Fair".

Simon had heard the British folk singer Martin Carthy perform the song, and filed it away for future reference as Carthy recalled:

Martin Carthy
"during the course of the evening I wrote the thing down for him"

Carthy himself learned the song from a Ewan MacColl songbook, and had recorded it on his first album. But the ballad is believed to have been written more than two centuries before that, to commemorate a fair that had first been held in the 13th Century. In those days, the herbs mentioned - parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme - were familiar charms, used to ward off the evil eye.

Another visiting American who was introduced to "Scarborough Fair" by Carthy was Bob Dylan, who heard the song on his first trip to London, during the winter of 1962, and later fed the tune into the melodies of two of his own songs: "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright".

The world first heard Simon & Garfunkel’s now-familiar take on "Scarborough Fair" in 1966, on the duo’s third album - and by then, they had incorporated the counter melody from an earlier Simon song, "The Side Of A Hill", into the "Canticle" section of their version. But it was the inclusion of "Scarborough Fair" on the following year’s soundtrack for The Graduate that made it probably the most widely-heard folk song of all time:

Paul Simon
"Mike Nichols called up and said he'd like to meet with us"

Can a scented breeze be captured in music? Try singing the mysterious melody of line 2, where the four herbs are incanted. We’re in the Dorian mode (Minor 3, Major 6, Flat 7), a musical scale used by the Ancient Greeks, and common to lyre and mediaeval dulcimer. Finding it on a modern piano couldn’t be simpler - just start the tune on D, and stay on the white notes. 
Dominic King

It was thanks to Simon & Garfunkel that "Scarborough Fair" became so well-known, and it is their arrangement that has featured on countless cosy cover versions over the years. Unfortunately though, the easy listening stigma has led the new generation of folk acts to shun the song, although the Stone Roses did use the melody for their own brief "Elizabeth My Dear" - which appeared on their debut album, perhaps the most eagerly-awaited album by a British band since the Smiths.

Hackles had been raised when the American pair first claimed the song as their own composition, rather than using the customary credit 'Trad. Arr. Simon & Garfunkel'. But, many years later, Simon did acknowledge his debt. In concert in London in 2000, Simon invited Martin Carthy to join him onstage, where, for the first time ever, the two men sang together on "Scarborough Fair".

Patrick Humphries

© BBCi 2003

I decided to stop being paranoid about it

Martin Carthy

  Martin Carthy on Scarborough Fair

Make a comment

Songwriting tips

Song structure can give the listener a natural sense of light and shade between the verse and chorus.

Find out more in our Songwriting Guides
Test your knowledge

Have a go at the "Scarborough Fair" quiz!

More songs.

Like this song? Try these...

Who Knows Where The Time Goes Fairport Convention

Doves Doves
Special guests on Dermot's show this week

What's on

Radio 2 Documentaries
Find out more about current and forthcoming documentaries on Radio 2.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy