For my next track of the week I’m going to Scarborough Fair. It’s a journey of around 150 miles from where I live now to the seaside town of Scarborough on the north east coast of England. I’ll have to travel back in time, too, because the fair hasn’t been held since 1788, but that’s OK; time travel is easy in a blogger’s pages.
Winding back the time dials of my Tardis I can see that the reference to Scarborough dates from the nineteenth century but we have to go back to 1670 to find the first trace of the lyrics, in the Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight. There are dozens of versions of Scarborough Fair now but, like the Elfin Knight, they all set impossible tasks for a would-be lover. As one version has it:
Love imposes impossible tasks
Though not more than any heart asks.
Simon and Garfunkel’s version of the song is unique in that another of Paul Simon’s compositions provides a counterpoint to the traditional words and music. Canticle is a reworked version of the anti-war song, The Side of a Hill, which adds another layer to the riddle of the strangely enigmatic words. The track starts with a quiet guitar motif, gentle singing and a distant tinkling of tubular bells. It’s a beginning fit for a lullaby, but it immediately poses a question: Are you going to Scarborough Fair? It may be bed time, but you must engage in a little conversation before you can go to sleep.
The minstrel doesn’t wait for the answer. Instead, he asks a small favour of you (remember me to one who lives there) and tells you why he makes this apparently simple request (she once was a true love of mine). There is heartfelt regret and deep sadness in his words.
In the second verse a harpsichord replaces the tinkling bells and a bass fills out the sound while the minstrel sings a challenge to his former lover: make me a shirt with neither seam nor needlework. The music is soothing, soft and gentle, but there is bitterness and anger in these lyrics. The singer knows the task is impossible and this is his chosen punishment for some unstated evil that his former lover has perpetrated.
The third and fourth verses issue more clear demands for the impossible. Each task grows up like a thorn bush encroaching on the path ahead, hindering our progress, and as they grow ever larger a second theme peeps through the thickening foliage like strangled sunlight. Its words are indistinct. Something about a mountain, a clarion call, soldiers, to kill. This is pain of a different kind.
Scarborough Fair is a riddle with no answers. What can the lady of the fair have done to warrant such bitter retribution? Can the lovers ever be reconciled? Why do we send young men to war, to fight and die? Is there no way to avoid the insanity of armed conflict? The song has no answers but it asks some important questions gently, thoughtfully and with a deep conviction. It is an essential piece of every music lover’s collection.