Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 32: Scarborough Fair

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

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Amorous elves and their riddling ways …eh.gif

Scarborough Fair is a song wherein a suitor is set a number of impossible tasks in order to satisfy the demands of their prospective lover.

The setting of impossible tasks seems to have been a very popular way of whiling away the time in many different parts of Britain. 

Traditionally, it was sung at farmhouse parties, between a young man who went outside the room, a girl who sat on a chair and a chorus of farm lads and lasses.

The man re-entered and addressed the girl with the first half of the ballad and she replied with the second half. 

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The song descends from an ancient Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight, collectedelf.gif by Francis James Child, which has been traced as far back as 1670 and may well be earlier. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task

  • “For thou must shape a sark to me
    Without any cut or heme, quoth he”

She responds with a list of similarly impossible tasks that he must first perform before she will go with him, eg ploughing an acre of land with one hand.

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The refrain “Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme” seems to have been a 19th century addition to the lyric, and may have been borrowed from another song.herbs.gif

The herbs mentioned in the refrain (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) were believed, at one time, to have virtues against disease, and, by extension, against evil.

So, they may be there because they were originally deemed to have a protective function – useful when you’re dealing with a wily elf!

Sir Walter Scott in his notes to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border recalled hearing a ballad of “a fiend …paying his addresses to a maid but being disconcerted by the holy herbs she wore in her bosom” and the refrain might be the survival of an incantation against such a suitor.

On the other hand, the line may simply be a corruption from an earlier variant which went “Sober and grave grows merry in time.”

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The best-known recording of the song is obviously Simon and Garfunkel’s version on their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Paul Simon had learned the song from English folksinger Martin Carthy.

Simon enhanced the musical arrangement with a vocal counterpoint sung against the main melody, but, rather than re-use the original lyrics, he inserted a reworking of the lyrics from his 1963 anti-war song, The Side of a Hill. 

That lyric has even less to do with the original song than the 19th century insertion of the herb-referencing refrain.

It makes for a pretty melodic and harmonic blend, but one has to wonder if it’s there simply for the purpose of generating royalties.

For people who wish to perform the Simon and Garfunkel version, I’ve cited their whole lyric in the chords and lyrics posting below, but I’ll be commenting only on the traditional words.

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Lend an ear and an eye …

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Scarborough Fair

Traditional, arr Simon & Garfunkel 1966, additional lyrics by Paul Simon

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Stressing the metre …metre

The stress pattern for each verse is, line by line, 

4  3  4  4

This happens over metres that are stressed mainly on the first syllable in Ll 1 & 4, and on the final syllable in Ll 2 & 3.

The exact metre varies from verse to verse, with extra syllables being inserted from time to time, but the first/last syllable alternation occurs in every verse.

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Verse 1 goes as follows …

  • Ll 1 & 4 – 3trochee (DUM-dah) + 1iamb (dah-DUM)
    L2 – 1dactyl (dah-dah-DUM), 1iamb, and 1dactyl
    L3 – 3iamb + 1dactyl

  • “|Are you|going to|Scar-bor- | -ough Fair?|
    Parsley sage| rose-mar– |-y and thyme|
    Re-mem-|-ber me| to one|who lives there|
    She once| was a|true love| of mine|”

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The reason behind the rhyme …rr.gif

The end-rhyme pattern is, allowing for the odd half-rhyme,  constant throughout:

  • A  B  A  B
  • “Fair” “thyme” “there” “mine”
    “Shirt” “thyme” “work” “mine”
    “land” “thyme” “strands” “mine”
    “leather” “thyme” “heather” “mine”

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Melody à la mode …mode.gif

The song is all in the commonly-used folk mode of  E dorian

  • E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D   E

As you can see, this mode is based on the 2nd  note in the scale of D major, but the predominance of the E minor chord establishes it as the tonic of the scale. 

The melody makes good use of the mode, stretching across a full 9th from low D to high E.

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The verdict? …

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So, what do I make of it all?

Well, structurally, it’s reasonably sound. The stress pattern is even, and the metres used, although they vary a little verse-to-verse, observe the same alternation of first-syllable-based and final-syllable-based forms.

The rhyming pattern is nice and regular, and the mode used is one that is common in folk music and helps to set its style as such in the ear of the listener.

Scarborough Fair has a pretty, lilting melody that makes good use of the dorian mode and is obviously memorable – half the world probably knows it!

So, this one too is a proven palpable hit!

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Next time, we’ll look at a more modern 
addition to the folk repertoire!

 

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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