Scarborough fair

7 March 2010

One of the pleasures of Empire and Love, the recent record by The Imagined Village – in which producer Simon Emmerson collaborates with a number of fine folk musicians, among them Martin and Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood – is hearing Martin Carthy reclaim ‘Scarborough Fair’, the traditional English song which he taught to Paul Simon in the 1960s, and became one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most distinctive successes.

Simon and Garfunkel claimed authorship of the S&G version (which they combined with Canticle, an updating of an earlier S&G song), even though they would still have collected their publishing royalties had they used the more honest “Traditional, arranged by” credit. Carthy was so incensed that he didn’t talk to Simon for thirty years, though was eventually reconciled when Paul Simon invited him to duet the song in a London concert in 2000. The story is that the publishing company was to blame for the false credit.

Carthy’s original version already had the distinctive patterns which the Simon and Garfunkel turned into a rich filigree, and in turn The Imagined Village reclaim the Englishness of the song, but in an arrangement which is distinctively modern, from an England of the 21st century. (The Imagined Village’s version, with vocals by Chris Wood, is at the top of the post – Simon and Garfunkel’s can be found below).

The distinction between theft and hommage is always worth investigating. Dylan – who also learned the song from Carthy in the 1960s – uses a part of the lyric in the chorus of his song Girl From The North Country: “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine”. More famously, he took the whole tune from Nottamun Town for another song – but then did write a whole new lyric to create Masters of War. (If you want to compare the songs, Fairport’s version of Nottamun Town is also on Youtube.)

Girl From The North Country is clearly ‘fair use’, while Masters of War represents creative use of a traditional tune in the public domain. Indeed, any folk music historian would recognise this – new words, old tune – as a familiar pattern. (Dylan had some problems on Masters of War because the musical arrangement he used was associated with the singer Jean Ritchie).  And Scarborough Fair, the English ballad we know today, is almost certainly a reversioning of an earlier Scottish song, The Elfin Knight. As James Boyle explains in his chapter ‘I Got a Mashup‘, in The Public Domain, our culture develops and reinvents itself by borrowing.

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2 Responses to “Scarborough fair”


  1. […] don’t like the teenage miserabilism of ‘I Am A Rock’, or the theft of the English folk canon, or the portentous power ballad that is ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water‘, or the preja vu […]

  2. Graeme Says:

    I noticed that, spookily, both versions of Scarborough Fair last exactly 6 mins 21 secs, so I thought I’d see what happened if I played them together. It’s a bit of a mess – the tempo of the S and G one is faster, and it’s a major third higher than the Imagined Village version. Still, lots of interesting twangy noises.


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