Monday, January 09, 2012

Sun (And Moon) Over Scarborough Fair

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without any seam, without needlework
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell him to buy me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea sand
Then he’ll be a true love of mine

Two verses from
“Scarborough Fair”

The Father of Gods and Men consented at once to all that Cupid asked . . . Then he called a full assembly of the gods, and announced to all, including Venus, that Cupid and Psyche were formally married, and that he proposed to bestow immortality upon the bride. Mercury brought Psyche into the palace of the gods, and Jupiter himself gave her the ambrosia to taste which made her immortal. This, or course, completely changed the situation. Venus could not object to a goddess for her daughter-in-law; the alliance had become eminently suitable. No doubt she reflected also that Psyche, living up in heaven with a husband and children to care for, could not be much on the earth to turn men’s heads and interfere with her own worship. So all came to a most happy end. Love and the Soul (for that is what Psyche means) had sought and, after sore trials, found each other; and that union could never be broken.

from Edith Hamilton’s account
of the impossible trials Venus
gave Psyche in

Over the weekend I spent a lot of time playing the traditional ballad, “Scarborough Fair” on guitar and keyboard. Not the Simon and Garfunkel version (which I hate) but the traditional version, in an arrangement I made myself. I’m using the song to learn alternate voicings of chords on keyboard.

But the song is very interesting, just as a traditional song. The lyrics tell of impossible trials a man gives a woman before she can be his true love (again?) and equally impossible trials a woman gives a man before he can be her true love (again?).

First of all, the business of “impossible” tasks is a very ancient plot device. Fairy lore is rich with such accounts, and even Greek mythology has many. One of my favorites is when Psyche is in love with Cupid but Venus is trying to prevent the romance. So Venus gives Psyche endless tasks which she, Venus, thinks will be impossible but fate (or Fate) always intervenes and Psyche somehow accomplishes every task (more or less).

I’ve always thought it was interesting that almost everyone knows about, for instance, the tales of Hercules or Jason and the Golden Fleece, but very few people know about the adventures of Psyche. I’m guessing it is some kind of stupid gender bias, but you never know. There could be some kind of even deeper meaning.

I believe in such things.

Anyway, the song “Scarborough Fair” doesn’t really have a happy ending. It doesn’t really have an ending at all. It just recounts a man and a woman asking someone to pass along their notions of impossible tasks for an old lover to accomplish before the old love can be rekindled.

But there might be more to it than that.

Nobody really knows what the chorus means, the “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” business. But I guess most historians point out that during the Middle Ages those were aromatic herbs used to ward off the awful smells associated with death from the Plague.

So some people believe “Scarborough Fair” contains allusions to death. Perhaps the impossible tasks refer to one lover being down in death and singing that when the other lover also has left the material world—when tasks impossible for a mortal become possible for them—then the two lovers can be reunited.

So far as I know, there is no accepted “definitive” reading to “Scarborough Fair,” but all the elements are very interesting to speculate about and to me that makes playing and singing the song much more fun than if the lyrics were straightforward.

It’s interesting that in the chorus about “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” there is an accidental. Many (most?) folk melodies are drawn from what we today call the major scale and use accepted intervals. “Scarborough Fair” includes a slightly dissonant interval, just the one, and it is in the chorus about the aromatic herbs associated with death.

That’s a pretty interesting little element.


This might sound strange, but one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff is because a little neighborhood hobby shop here in this suburb recently closed down. I’m guessing they couldn’t compete with the giant craft stores that sell some hobby supplies, and with online places like Amazon and others.

It’s too bad, because at the neighborhood hobby shop the people who worked there actually used most of the things they sold so you could always talk to them and get advice for how to use whatever you were buying. At the big craft stores the clerk are just, well, clerks.

Anyway, across the alley from the building where the neighborhood hobby shop used to be, one of the homes has wide, decorative posts driven into the ground next to their yard. In the summer, on sunny hot days, I’ve often seen snakes coiled up on top of those posts basking.

In my whole life, that’s the only place I’ve ever seen snakes basking in the Sun.

So because of the snakes, and one or two other reasons, I’ve always considered that location, around where the neighborhood hobby shop used to be, to be kind of a special place.

I don’t really know what that means, exactly—a “special place.” But some places are special in one way or another.

I believe in such things, too.


So, anyway, that’s what I was doing over the weekend. Learning different chord voicings on keyboard and practicing them by making up harmony arrangements for the traditional folk ballad, “Scarborough Fair.”

And thinking about all the possible things the odd lyrics of that song might mean.

And thinking about, too, this odd location in the suburb where one of the last really cool stores used to be, and where snakes bask in the summer Sun.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Two Notes (later):

1) In typical arrangements, the “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” line would begin on the second beat of the measure and not need ties, but I wanted to call attention to the accidental. And it is possible, of course, to do an arrangement that features the line “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” by starting it on the first beat and harmonizing the accidental itself. Why would you want to do that? Well—

2) A reading for “Scarborough Fair” that I’ve never heard but which is interesting is that the singer, a man or woman, is actually the dead person and they are addressing Death itself, asking Death if He is going to Scarborough Fair and asking Death to tell, comfort, the one He is going for, that when they leave the mortal world they will be able to do impossible things and lost loves will be reunited. (The song can be sung as a kind of ode: “Are YOU going to Scarborough Fair, Parsley-sage-rosemary-and-thyme?” The ‘you’ would be “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” i.e., Death itself. The song, read that way, can be thought of as a kind of centuries-old folk version of “Don’t Fear The Reaper”!)


Celestial Elf said...

Wonderful Post.
I thought you might enjoy machinima film about the folk song Scarborough Fair
along with my speculative conjecture that this may have arisen from Spencer's poem The Faerie Queene
Best Wishes.

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