Essential Traditional Folk Songs #5: ‘Scarborough Fair’ (versions by Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, and Emily Smith)

Most people don’t know that Simon and Garfunkel got ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Martin Carthy. Paul Simon learned the song from Martin in the early 1960s in London, and, sadly, went on to record it on ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ without admitting that he was copying Martin’s arrangement, or even acknowledging that it was a traditional song and not his own composition (the story of how they reconciled that quarrel is told in this newspaper article). The song goes back a long way in the English and Scottish folk traditions; it was originally called ‘The Elfin Knight‘.

Here is Martin, now one of the grand old gentlemen of the English folk music world, with his own performance of ‘Scarborough Fair’ from his 1965 album ‘Martin Carthy‘ (which, by the way, you can hear in its entirety on YouTube here); this was the arrangement that Paul Simon heard.

For those who want to know more about Martin, check out his website here. He is one of the best loved figures in the world of traditional English folk music today.

Mainly Norfolk has a good page about ‘Scarborough Fair/Wittingham Fair/The Elfin Knight’ here. There’s also a brilliant history of the evolution of the song called ‘Tell Her to Make Me a Cambric Shirt’ – from ‘The Elfin Knight’ to ‘Scarborough Fair’ which is well worth reading.

Martin Carthy learned this song from Ewan MacColl, one of the most influential figures of the folk revival of the 1950s in England. Here is MacColl’s recorded version of the song, from the LP ‘Matching Songs of the British Isles and America‘ (1957).

But the joy of traditional folk music is that these songs continue to evolve. Emily Smith is a wonderful Scottish folk singer; she has taken a different version of the ‘Elfin Knight’ tradition, reworked it and written a wonderful new tune to it. It is found on her 2011 album ‘Traveller’s Joy‘. Here she is:

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