The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #141: Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon and Garfunkel (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #141: Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon and Garfunkel.

“Scarborough Fair” is a song whose origins have been traced back all the way to the late 1600s!!! It is a ballad that was based, originally, on the story “The Elfin Knight” which is a tale that saw an elf set a series of impossible tasks before a fair maiden. If she cannot accomplish these tasks, the elf will abduct her and make her his wife. She responds with counter tasks for the elf, as she battles for her continued freedom. It is this, back and forth battle of wits betwen the elf and the maiden from “The Elfin Knight” tale from hundreeds of years ago, upon which Simon and Garfunkel based the structure of their version of “Scarborough Fair”.

The story of “The Elfin Knight” was set in the very real town of, Scarborough, in North Yorkshire in England. Even to this day, Scarborough, UK, is home to popular Renaissance Fairs that re-enact many battles and plays from History. It was because of Fairs such as the one in Scarborough proper that this song became popular in our modern times, too. As you can appreciate, the lyrics has changed over time but, for the most part, the lyrics used in the Simon and Garfunkel version came into existence just after WWII. A song similar to the modern version was sung by a man named Mark Anderson to his friend, Ewan McColl. McColl and a lady named Peggy Seeger, wrote the lyrics and melody in a book called, “The Singing Island”. From this book, a decade and a half later, a man named Martin Carthy sang the song on his debut album and, in doing so, claimed a copyright, of sorts. This is an important element in the evolution of this song because, when Simon and Garfunkel took the song for their use, they gave no credit to Carthy nor paid him any royalties. Naturally, Carthy sued. Paul Simon’s counter-claim was based on the fact that he altered the lyrics, based upon an anti-war song of his called, “The Side of the Hill”. This, in addition to Art Garfunkel, tweaking the melody, gave rise to the “Canticle” part of their song title and was thought by both men to be sufficient to make it a distinct recording from the one originally sung by Carthy, who was faithful to the original version by Anderson, McColl and Seeger back in the 1940s. Eventually, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel settled out of court and paid Carthy an undisclosed but “substantial” amount of money, according to Paul Simon. The hatchet was formally buried when Carthy and Simon performed the song together on stage…..thirty years after the first lawsuits were filed!

As always, few can harmonize as well as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel could in their day. Thus, a song like “Scarborough Fair” seems perfectly suited for them. When my girls hear them sing this song, they roll their eyes and give me the, “this is such an old song” line but, little do they realize just how old this song actually is.

So, without further delay, here are Simon and Garfunkel, with a song that is over four hundred years old, making it, unquestionably, the oldest song in this entire countdown. Here is “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Simon and Garfunkel, Canberra found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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