Scarborough Fair

Chords, modes, feisty lyrics and endless variations

Downloadable PDFs of Scarborough Fair: Tune line, chords and full lyrics.

Scarborough Fair in Dm (the key in the LCM book)

Scarborough Fair Am (our key)

Scarborough Fair Em (Simon and Garfunkel’s key)

One of the highlights of my summer Big Fat Music Party was the family of four who sang and played Scarborough Fair.

LCM1Our interest in this song was sparked by an arrangement of it by Wild in the son’s LCM grade 1 piano book. It’s a nice arrangement which sounds lovely as a solo piano piece, but we soon found we wanted to get to know the bones of the music and understand it, so we were quickly off the printed page, looking at the chord structure underneath the melody, singing the words and making our own arrangements.

As with a lot of folksongs, the key isn’t really minor or major, it is modal; it’s in the dorian mode. The scale has a minor 3rd, a major 6th and a minor 7th, which when you’re starting on D, works out as all the white notes.

Dorian D

Dorian mode is a great scale to encourage students to play around. I usually play a jazz waltz like accompaniment – and they can freely play any white notes on top of that.

Dorian Accompaniment

It’s great because they can’t hit a wrong note, so they are free to experiment and let their ears guide them. We do a bit of trading phrases too, and I just keep the accompaniment going in the left hand.

We explored how you can harmonise the melody with block or broken chords in the left hand.

The daughter of the family who has developed a love of singing lately got in on the act and we transposed it from D to A Dorian, which is a little more palatable to sing.

Now we could experiment with A Dorian, which has one black note, F#, on the major 6th.

Dorian A

Because this is Dorian rather than minor, you have a D major chord in the harmony rather than D minor, because of this sharpened 6th (F#) in the scale. It gives it that wonderful old-world feel, as these folk songs are from a time before major and minor modality took off.

The dad is learning guitar, so he accompanied with a nice um cha cha strum.

Scarborough fair chordsNotice the irregular bar structure. Folk songs often have this fluidity about them, as they would likely be sung by an unaccompanied singer.

This isn’t the only way to harmonise this, by the way. It’s the one that suited us best at the time. There are so many variations you could choose, just experiment and find which chords you like best.

So at the party, on the piano we had the mum on broken chords in the bass and son on the tune, dad accompanying on guitar and daughter singing.

I loved the way the son kept something which he liked from that initial arrangement; an echo of the last phrase which softly plays out, beginning on the singer’s last word. I got all the other players to stop on this last word, so the echoing phrase meandered on its own, over the ringing out of the final chord. He milked it well too. Nothing like a playful ending to captivate an audience, and leave them with a good memory of the piece!


Now this was really interesting. I had grown up with the Simon and Garfunkel version which is beautifully ethereal, has an anti-war poem of Simon’s woven in as a counter melody, five verses and doesn’t appear to make a whole lot of sense.

A quick trip to Wikipedia showed me older versions with a lot more verses, and the song being a dialog between a male and female singer, where basically he says she can be his lover if she performs a series of impossible tasks, and she returns with a pretty neat comeback!

Male part:

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

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Where never sprung water or rain ever fell,
And she shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,
Then she shall be a true lover of mine.

Female part:

Now he has asked me questions three,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
I hope he’ll answer as many for me,
Before he shall be a true lover 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 shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And sow it all over with one peppercorn,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to sheer’t with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And bind it up with a peacock’s feather,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
And never let one corn of it fall,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

When he has done and finished his work.
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme:
Oh, tell him to come and he’ll have his shirt,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

And finally, as a Dylan fan of old, I can’t mention Scarborough Fair without mentioning the equally if not more beautiful, ‘Girl from the North Country’, one of the songs Bob Dylan wrote which was directly inspired by a folk song, using some of the form and the lyrics to create something with a feel that is new and old all at the same time.


About Rosa Conrad

Teacher, writer, performer.
This entry was posted in charts, Ensemble, guitar, music teaching, piano, sheet music, singing, theory and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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