An Acre of Land

"Scarborough Fair/Canticle"
Simon & Garfunkel
1966
"Scarborough Fair"
Martin Carthy
1965
"The Elfin Knight"
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
1961

There has been a fair in the Yorkshire village of Scarborough since 1253. But the song we now know as "Scarborough Fair," or in the Simon & Garfunkel version "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," didn't find its way to Scarborough until the nineteenth century.

"Scarborough Fair" is a version of a much older song, usually called "The Elfin Knight." The lyrics in both songs are a list of impossible tasks set by someone for a prospective lover. In the original, it's the elfin knight himself, who tells the mortal woman who wants to marry him:

An ye would be wed wi' me,
There's a thing ye mun do for me.
Ye mun make me a linen sark
Without a stitch or needle or work
Ye mun wash it in yon dry well
Where water never sprang nor fell.
Ye mun dry it on yon hawthorn
That has nae seen blossoms since man was born

In this version, the song has a sort of magical logic. The knight implies that while a mortal woman can't make him a shirt without using needle or thread, and wash it in a dry well, these are things his elfin wife (and in some versions he is already married, with children) can do.

The Scarborough Fair version uses the same idea, but with the singer and his former love replacing the elf and the maiden. There are several versions, some referring to other fairs and with other refrains, but the most famous arrangement to modern listeners was originally by England folk legend Martin Carthy, who learned it from one of Ewan MacColl's collections.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel took Martin Carthy's arrangement more or less whole cloth, including the distinctive guitar part, but only Simon and Garfunkel were credited with the song on 1966's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. The only change is the addition of a counterpoint, sung by Garfunkel, of a separate song, "Canticle," sung in between lines of Carthy's arrangement. This snub--in which the song was not only not credited to Carthy, but not even acknowledged to be traditional--led to decades of bad feelings between Carthy and Simon, especially after its use in the film The Graduate catapulted the song to massive popularity. The two have reportedly since settled their dispute and have performed the song together.

The version recorded by Carthy and by Simon shares the format of "The Elfin Knight," but with the supernatural elements removed, it sounds more spiteful than magical. Many modern listeners assume the song is about a lover trying to reconcile. But the tasks Simon sets--sewing a shirt without a needle or a seam; finding an acre of land in between the ocean and the beach; and cutting grain with a leather scythe--are the same impossible tasks as the elfin knight gives; the folk-singing equivalent of "when hell freezes over."

Bob Dylan also recorded a version of the song, solo and as a duet with Johnny Cash. "Girl From The North Country" keeps the form and the refrain, but replaces the verses with pleasant memories:

If you're traveling in the north country far
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she was once a true love of mine.

Please see if her hair hangs long
It rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see from me if her hair's hanging long
For that's the way I remember her best.
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