Song Story: Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough.

Scarborough is a small town on the coast of England. The “Scarborough Fair” was a popular gathering in Medieval times, attracting traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a resort town. Today,

Scarborough in 1890, North Yorkshire, England
Picture from Wikipedia

Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history.

In Medieval England, this became a popular folk song as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the song is unknown, and many different versions exist. The traditional version has many more lyrics.

The earliest commercial recording of the ballad was by actor/singers Gordon Heath and Lee Payant, Americans who ran a cafe and nightclub, L’Abbaye, on the Rive Gauche in Paris. They recorded the song on the Elektra album Encores From The Abbaye in 1955. Their version used the melody from Frank Kidson’s collection Traditional Tunes, published in 1891, which reported it as being “as sung in Whitby streets twenty or thirty years ago” – that is, in about the 1860s.

Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer named Martin Carthy. When Carthy heard Simon & Garfunkel’s rendition, he accused Simon of stealing his arrangement. Carthy and Simon did not speak until 2000, when Simon asked Carthy to perform this with him at a show in London. Carthy put his differences aside and did the show.

Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England
Picture from Wikipedia

Martin Carthy learned the song from a Ewan MacColl songbook, and had recorded it on his first album, according to BBC’s Patrick Hamphries.

Paul Simon admitted to the July 2011 edition of Mojo magazine: “The version I was playing was definitely what I could remember of Martin’s version, but he didn’t teach it to me. Really, it was just naivety on my part that we didn’t credit it as his arrangement of a traditional tune. I didn’t know you had to do that. Then later on, Martin’s publisher contacted me and we made a pretty substantial monetary settlement that he was supposed to split with Martin, But unbeknown to me, Martin got nothing.”

Before Simon & Garfunkel got to it, Bob Dylan used the lines, “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine” in his 1963 song “Girl From The North Country.”

 

 

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