The word "ballad" is now so far removed from its original meaning as to have a new definition, that of simply "song," or "love song." But centuries before songs like Bryan Adams' "Heaven" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know Where Love Is" were referred to as "power ballads," the word's much older meaning was "story song."
A traditional ballad is a song like the carol "The Little Drummer Boy," a story punctuated by a nonsense refrain ("pa-rum-pa-pum-pum"), so that even those who did not know it could sing along; "Doo wah diddy, diddy dum, diddy doo" has its origins in "Fa-la-la-la-la, la la la la" and songs even older.
Ballads had strong internal structures, but the story itself could be about anything, and was often sad. "Lord Randall" is about a lethal betrayal by a beloved, "Sir Patrick Spense" is about a those waiting for a ship lost at sea, and even the supposedly humorous "Get Up and Bar the Door" is about a break-in that almost leads to a rape. So Tom Lehrer's pitch-perfect, pitch-black "Irish Ballad,"-- about a girl who brutally, yet casually, murders her family members one by one-- is less a parody than a fine sample of the genre.
That said, we turn to "Scarborough Fair," a true, "old-school" ballad. While Simon's version is certainly the most well-known and popular, Simon's contribution must realistically be treated as an arrangement more than an original composition. The reason it sounds so much like an ancient ballad is that it is one-- a version has been discovered going back to the late 1600s. Simon was introduced to the ballad by a British folksinger-songwriter named Martin Carthy. (Even so, the song is so closely identified with Simon at this point, no blog claiming to discuss "Every Single Paul Simon Song" can omit it.)
One more note: The interlaced verses called "Canticle" are based on (and vary somewhat from) another of Simon's songs, "The Side of a Hill," which we will discuss next.
"Scarborough Fair" is another of Simon's deceptive songs. Most listeners hear the languid harmonizing over the traditional, harpsichord-dappled melody and understandably swoon. In fact, the song is one of the duo's most popular of all.
But simply reading the lyrics surprisingly reveals a scoffing sneer at a now-scorned lover. The speaker begins by requesting of the listener: "Oh, you're going to Scarborough Fair? If you run into my ex there, say 'Hi' for me." Harmless enough.
The next verses, however, are a series of sarcastic assertions as to when "she'll be a true love of [his]." When? "When pigs fly," or "When Hell freezes over." In short, never.
Consider-- What is the first task he sets for her if she is to regain his love? First, she is to make a "cambric shirt... without no seam or needlework." Even if one does not know that "cambric" is often the base fabric on which fine needlework and embroidery is done, how can one make any sort of "shirt without [any] seam"?
The next task: "Find [him] an acre of land... between the saltwater and the sea strand." The "saltwater" is the ocean itself, and the "sea strand" is the beach, the stretch where it meets the water. Is there any land at all between the ocean and the beach, let alone an entire "acre"? The water engulfs and overlaps part of the beach at every high tide.
Her third task, once she finds this impossible acre: "Reap it in a sickle of leather." No sickles have ever been leather. They are all made of metal, or at least stone-- something that can be sharpened into a blade with which to cut down, or "reap," crops.
Finally, she is to take these crops and "Gather [them] all in a bunch of heather." Heather is a short, dense, clump of flowering, twig-like stalks (apologies to readers named "Heather"-- the plant is actually quite pretty!). To gather stalks of grain into sheaves-- and make them stay gathered-- one must wrap them around the middle with some sort of long, strong cord or rope.
The famous refrain-- "Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme"-- which gives this album its title, might be the cry of an herb seller. The collection of herbs is thought by some to be a love potion-- or even a code of sorts, with each herb standing for an emotion. Most likely, it is simply a contextually appropriate replacement for "tra-la-la."
The herb seller is crying his wares, of course, at the Scarborough Fair, an enormous open-air market held in England, with its heyday from the mid-1200s to the late 1300s; it hung on until the year before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Probably not unlike today's county fairs-- with entertainment in between the farm stands-- it was held in from the late summer to the early autumn, and brought buyers and sellers from across the land.
When Simon was the guest on "The Muppet Show," he sang the song (playing a lute) on a stage elaborately and accurately decorated like a Medieval fair. In between the Muppet schtick, it's a nice rendition, and you can hear all of the words without any "Canticle" in the way (it's on YouTube). Toward the end, a duck follows him, quacking. At first this is annoying, but then one realizes that this is very sort of distraction a real troubadour would have had to deal with at a Medieval fair... just as a busker today must sing over the noise of the subway. That's showbiz.
While the song is exceedingly old, Simon's arrangement is by now the one most widely recognized and performed. Even those who sought out earlier versions most likely heard Simon's first.
Allmusic.com catalogs more than 760 albums that contain a version of "Scarborough Fair."
The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Next songs: Canticle and The Side of a Hill