Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. The song relates the tale of a young man who instructs the listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished.
As the versions of the ballad known under the title Scarborough Fair are usually limited to the exchange of these impossible tasks, many suggestions concerning the plot have been proposed, including the theory that it is about the Great Plague of the late Middle Ages. The lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” appear to have something in common with an obscure Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight which has been traced at least as far back as 1670 and may well be earlier. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task.
As the song spread, it was adapted, modified, and rewritten to the point that dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century, although only a few are typically sung nowadays. The references to the traditional English fair, “Scarborough Fair” and the refrain “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” date to 19th century versions. A number of older versions refer to locations other than Scarborough Fair, including Wittingham Fair, Cape Ann, “twixt Berwik and Lyne”, etc.
The earliest notable recording of it was by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, a version which heavily influenced Simon and Garfunkel’s later more famous version. Amongst many other recordings, the tune was used by the Stone Roses as the basis of their song “Elizabeth my Dear”.