Scarborough Fair is making a resurgence now in the 21st century, mostly through a variety of folk- / virtuoso- / Irish-specialist groups that are gaining popularity in the 2010s. But what is notable — I think unfortunate — is that with only a couple of exceptions, they are all based on the Simon and Garfunkel version from their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. That is to say, they use the same set of lyrics and base their arrangement on Paul Simon’s version, which is engineered to be offset with the Canticle counterpoint. Scarborough Fair was once a traditional, but it’s now a Simon and Garfunkel cover.
To some degree it bothers me that the three verses of impossible tasks don’t connect the way they do in the traditional. The selected verses are the cambric shirt (without sewing), the acre of land (along the sea foam) and the reaping (with a sickle of leather), the last of which makes little sense without the sowing verse. And this would be a modest nitpick but that it is now covered that way by everyone.
The songs on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme were based on Simon’s writing while he was in England the previous year. Scarborough Fair was a juxtaposition (a fond trick of Simon) which tells a darker story than the traditional did (even when it was about Satan trying to ensnare a clever woman). I can’t say if Simon was drawing from eighteenth century or nineteenth century tradition or was simply expressing his own modernist cynicism (which he also expresses in is other work), but they do run parallel.
This time, the story centers on a couple, one who is at Scarborough Fair, and one who isn’t, and can’t make it. His story (the narrator) is told in the counterpoint, the Canticle:*
On the side of a hill in the deep forest green.
Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested brown.
In blankets and bedclothes, the child of the mountain
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call.
On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves.
Washes the grave with silvery tears.
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun.
War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions.
Generals order their soldiers to kill.
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.
Across the ages, it’s always been hard to say I love you, and I would spend the rest of my life with you, but my life is doomed and I don’t want to get hurt any more than you have to be. And the a good basic interpretation of this story is that a soldier is saying goodbye before being called off to duty, and (because this is a cynical war story) to perish on the battlefield. That’s how she once was a true love of mine (but is no longer), yet will be a true love, if she only do these things that cannot be done.
I see an additional twist to it, specifically that our true-lover is not merely at Scarborough Fair, but is enjoying it. She’s thrilled to be there. Perhaps she’s shopping her socks off (and getting new socks!) and trying out a dozen or more foods and buying a few for her kitchen (Oooh lush parsley! Oooh aromatic sage!). Perhaps she imagines preparing a marvelous feast for her loverboy.
And our soldier is there, preparing to disembark to a front line somewhere and knows that a message outright, I got the notice. I ship off in two hours. Sorry. I love you. is going to ruin her day. Break her heart. Make her cry right there in the middle of Scarborough Fair.
And so he’s telling her in riddles that it wasn’t meant to be. And modestly, he hopes she won’t figure it out until after her hour of bliss.
*The Canticle lyrics are actually a revision of one of Simon’s previous pieces, The Side Of a Hill which tells a less vague story that has influenced my interpretation Scarborough Fair / Canticle. Listen with caution.