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 is a quiet town with a rich history. (thanks, Sheryl - Seal Rock, OR)
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.
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.
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."
The lyrics are about a man trying to attain his true love. In Medieval times, the herbs mentioned in the song represented virtues that were important to the lyrics. Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love, and thyme was courage.
This was not released as a single until 1968, when it was used in the Dustin Hoffman movie The Graduate. It is on the soundtrack.
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
"Scarborough Fair" and "Canticle" are 2 songs that are sung simultaneously to create this piece. The first and last verses are "Scarborough Fair," but lines from "Canticle" alternate after the first line of the other verses, so "On the side of a hill in a deep forest green" and "Tracing of sparrow on snow-crested ground" are from "Canticle."
This song is often listed as "Scarborough Fair/Canticle." On The Paul Simon Songbook, a little known 1965 UK album of Simon-solo demos, there is a song called "The Side Of a Hill." "The Side Of a Hill" was reworked into the Canticle part of "Scarborough Fair." (thanks, Jesse - Roanoke, VA)
With its implicit anti-Vietnam War message, this was used in The Wonder Years TV series in a scene where Kevin Arnold embraces Winnie Cooper while the song was played at the end of the episode. In the show, Winnie's brother had been killed in Vietnam. (thanks, Marciliano - Fortaleza, Brazil)