Sunday morning music

To my surprise, I recently learned that a friend had no idea about the controversy surrounding the song ‘Scarborough Fair‘, as performed by Simon & Garfunkel.  It’s an interesting piece of music trivia.  Wikipedia describes it like this.

Paul Simon learned the song in London in 1965 from Martin Carthy, who had picked up the tune from the songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and included it on his eponymous 1965 album. Simon & Garfunkel set it in counterpoint with “Canticle” – a reworking of the lyrics from Simon’s 1963 anti-war song, “The Side of a Hill“, set to a new melody composed mainly by Art Garfunkel. It was the lead track of the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and was released as a single after being featured on the soundtrack to The Graduate in 1968. The copyright credited only Simon and Garfunkel as the authors, causing ill-feeling on the part of Carthy, who felt the “traditional” source should have been credited. This rift remained until Simon invited Carthy to perform the song with him as a duet at a London concert in 2000.

I think it goes further than that.  The dispute certainly aroused strong feelings in British folk music circles, where Martin Carthy’s setting of ‘Scarborough Fair’ was widely regarded as the original, ‘trad-folk’ authentic one.  Paul Simon was derided by some as having ‘stolen’ Carthy’s arrangement without any acknowledgment or recompense.  Carthy reportedly decided not to sue over the issue, but bad feeling remained for a very long time.

This morning, I’ll let you judge for yourself.  Here’s Martin Carthy’s 1965 version.

And here’s Paul Simon’s arrangement, from 1966.

From the sound alone, I reckon it’s pretty much an open-and-shut case.  Carthy’s arrangement was undoubtedly used by Paul Simon, in a slightly adapted form.  Why he never acknowledged that, or paid any sort of license fee, I have no idea.



  1. This song drives me crazy. It’s a riddle song from the 1400s. People today have no concept of how life was then and put modern interpretations on historic accounts. Plus, S&G butchered the original words.

    If you look at the modern writings about the song, it’s all about someone requesting their lover to do impossible things. The problem is, if you lived in that time period, the actions make perfect sense.

    I read a book in 1975 that explained all of the “impossible” things but can’t remember the title and internet searches don’t provide the answers. (Once more, not everything is on the net.)

    Anyway, from at I do remember –

    “Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
    Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
    Without no seams nor needle work”

    At that time period, people wove their own cloth. There is a method called double weave where two layers of cloth are woven at the same time on a loom and the edges are woven together. You get a seamless tube and by hand weaving on the loom you can add the neck and arm holes, with no seam or needle work. You could also knit a seamless shirt.

    “Tell her to find me an acre of land
    Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
    Between the salt water and the sea strand”

    This refers to a cliff. The original song had sea strand, not sand. S&G changed the lyrics. The sea strand is the top of the cliff, the sea beats at the bottom.

    “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”

    Some modern “authorities” say this is witchcraft to make a love potion. Maybe, but I think it was just put in there to give an added line and make the song easier to remember. This was time when few of the common folk were literate and oral tradition was the way things were passed on.

    Unfortunately, I don’t remember the rest of the answers; maybe someone here will have better luck in researching the material.

  2. Agreed. Simon and Garfunkle ripped off Carthy. Although I never knew this until your post today. I think Carthy did it better.

  3. Why did he do it?

    Because he thought he could get away with it. And–right-down to right-down–he DID!

  4. Peter,

    Folk Music presents real problems for copyright claim. Obviously, you can't claim copyright on a traditional tune-it is not your own creative work. It follows that similarity in derivations from a traditional source is to be expected. That makes for a near impossible situation in court.

    If you have a completely original work, it is much easier to defend. In that case, close similarity would be very convincing to a jury.

    Music copyright cases are messy. Because of differences in law, it is possible for copyright to rest with different people in different countries (international copyright conventions have reduced this over the years).

    I expect that this was one of the cases where a court fight would only have benefited the legal teams of each side. Those interested might want to look up the details of the legal wrangle over both the words and music for "Rum and Coca Cola".

  5. Didn't they have something similar with "el cóndor pasa"?

    Then, different singer, "yerushalayim shel zahav" is based on a Basque lullaby (much as I love Basques, I actually preffer OH's take)· And on and on.

    It's popular music, that's what it does.

    Take care.


  6. New to me! I heard it back when, but being in the midwest, and later in the military, never heard of any controversy.

  7. I originally learned the lyrics Anonymous describes, because my mother went back to the version in the Child collection. Of course, this is the same mother who used "Greenwood Sidie-o" and "All my Sorrows" as lullabyes, which probably explains a lot about me.

    I was going to use part of "I Wonder as I Wander" in _Clawing Back from Chaos_, but I would have needed to add a footnote referring to an article in a folklore journal about provinance and public-domain, because there is a bit of a fight going on over if J. J. Niles collected the lyrics (he claimed that he did, sometimes) or if he composed them and they are still in copyright.

    'Tis a mess.


  8. The music company who owned S&G back then made all those decision's. Geoff Who is still protesting the DMCA!

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