Trivial beginnings

the first fruits of my self-determined genius…

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Posted by larkascending on June 12, 2008

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.

Simple and soulful. Soothing voices. Simon & Garfunkel. But there’s more to this song than just (the great) S & G. And that’s why the post.

A complete version of this ballad tells the tale of a young man asking his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, following which he will accept her love back. Often, it is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving a series of equally impossible tasks, promising him his seamless Cambric shirt (one of the impossible tasks) once he accomplishes the tasks assigned to him. This ballad in turn has been proposed to be inspired from an old Scottish ballad (ooooh, i know!) in which an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task; she responds with a list of tasks which he must first perform, thus evading his forced love. Later versions invert the direction of desire, with the elf proposing tasks which the lady must perform in order to be accepted as his lover.

“For thou must shape a sark to me,
Without any cut or heme,” quoth he.

Here’s the amazing part: There are versions A–M (13 versions) of this ballad and 8 additional copies! One of the versions that comes closest to S & G’s song is

‘The Cambrick Shirt’

Gammer Gurton’s Garland, p.3, ed. 1810

1 ‘Can you make me a cambrick shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without any seam or needle work?

And you shall be a true lover of mine

2 ‘Can you wash it in yonder dry well,
Where never sprung water nor rain ever fell?

3 ‘Can you dry it on yonder thorn,

Which never bore blossom since Adam was born?

4 ‘Now you have asked me questions three,

I hope you’ll answer as many for me.

5 ‘Can you find me an acre of land

Between the salt water ad the sea sand?

6 ‘Can you plow it with ram’s horn,
And sow it all over with one pepper corn?

7 ‘Can you reap it with a sickle of leather,
And bind it up with a peacock’s feather?

8 ‘When you have done, and finished your work,
Then come to me for your cambrick shirt.’

This one also explains the duet bit because the first verses of the traditional English ballad sung by male voices corresponds to the questions of the elfin knight, while the latter verses correspond to the maiden’s response.

Looking for the song’s origin, some historians refer to the Plague. They interpret the lyrics as the dramatic story of a sick and dying man, banned from the city because of his illness. The herbs are considered symbols for fighting off the epidemic. Other accounts of the origin are more romantic (and vastly preferred I am sure) as they see the lyrics as a complaint of a man whose lover has unexpectedly deserted him to pursue work in the prosperous big city. In this case, the references to parsley, sage, and thyme are taken as symbolically representing the powers of these herbs to counter bitterness (parsley), to offer strength (sage), to imbue a loving remembrance (rosemary), and to give courage (thyme). Also, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are the ingredients of a love spell that was very popular in the Middle Ages. I love the interpretation in this website. 😀

S & G have two versions of the song. One is the version Simon learnt—a recent telling of the ballad (lyrics here). The more interesting (one of my favorites) and the popular one is the Scarborough fair/Canticle version, which has a beautiful arrangement and is brilliantly performed. Simon learnt the original arrangement from a folk artist Martin Carthy and Garfunkel set it in counterpoint (overlaps in a sense; listen to the song and you’ll get what it is) with Canticle, a reworking of Simon’s 1963 song “The Side of a Hill” with new, anti-war lyrics. The two songs are completely unrelated; in fact, while one mourns a lover, the other’s about war. However, the sheer brilliance of the arrangement and the rendition leave you mesmerized and hazy to bother about details at the first hearing. Sarah Brightman and various other artistes (including Martin Carthy himself) have done their versions of the ballad but none of them are a patch on S & G. The Sarah Brightman version leaves you with mixed feelings. Her voice is angelic and the use of the violin orchestra gives the song a very grand feel but the use of drums and electric guitar and the arrangement in some places makes it modernized, which, in my opinion, takes away some of the traditional charm of the folk song.

S & G are clearly the masters! Go acoustic! Long live S & G 🙂

In the rains, there is not a more dreamy song I can think of to make the day more…well…dreamy.

Experience the magic! Cheers! 😀

If you say that you can’t, then I shall reply,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Oh, Let me know that at least you will try,
Or you’ll never be a true love of mine.

Love imposes impossible tasks,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
But none more than any heart would ask,
I must know you’re a true love of mine.


4 Responses to “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”

  1. Hi,
    Just visiting your site ..
    Very nice and lot of information ..
    Cheers 🙂 ..

  2. larkascending said

    Thanks 😀

  3. jbpublishers said

    paresly to cleanse,
    rosemary to develop the slow and true love tht is not infatuation, but love.
    thyme for courage.
    the recipe was known even in ancient rome. the elf? before there were elves there were male power figures…stags what have you. the acre of land? it is always there, always shifting like a serpent winding around the circle of the world.
    a nice blog. i enjoyed readingit whilst looking for more tellings of this story.

  4. larkascending said

    That’s really cool!

    I guess I droned on a lil more than I should have about the Elf bit because of my fantasy fixation 🙂

    Thanks much for the comment! 😀

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