The Broom of the Cowdenowes

Martyn Wylde performs Child Ballad No. 217, The Broom of the Cowdenowes from his album, The Child Ballads, Vol. 1

The Child Ballads,

(Are you going to) Scarborough Fair?

Scarborough Fair became one of the most well known of folk songs due to the 1966 recording by Simon and Garfunkel which became a hit record worldwide, and which was included in the soundtrack of the film, The Graduate. Documented versions of the song are known to have existed as early as 1650 and it is generally considered to be a variant of the traditional English folk song The Elfin Knight (Child Ballad No. 2).


The melody later developed by Simon & Garfunkel in Scarborough Fair/Canticle was first recorded on a 1956 album, English Folk Songs, by Audrey Coppard (Smithsonian Folkways). Ewan MacColl performed the song with Peggy Seeger on their 1961 album, Classic Scots Ballads. It was then recorded by British folk legend Martin Carthy (the first British folk singer to be awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II) on his first solo album in 1965. Paul Simon heard the Carthy version on a visit to Britain in that year.

Simon, interviewed in the July 2011 edition of Mojo magazine: “The version I was playing was definitely what I could remember of Martin’s version, but he didn’t teach it to me.” Although the arrangement of Scarborough Fair recorded by Simon and Garfunkel was almost a note-for-note copy of Carthy’s (with the addition of “Canticle”, the counterpoint vocal), neither Carthy nor the Child designation were credited on the recording. A monetary settlement with Carthy was made decades later, and Carthy and Simon finally buried the hatchet by performing the song together at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2000.


Scarborough Fair tells a tale of a young man who asks his former love, through an intermediary, to perform a series of seemingly impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt – “tell her to make me a cambric shirt without no seam” – and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. When sung as a duet, the woman then gives her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him the seamless shirt once he has completed them.

The oldest versions of “The Elfin Knight” (circa 1650) contain the refrain “my plaid away, my plaid away, the wind shall not blow my plaid away”. Some more recent versions often contain one of a group of related refrains:

Sober and grave grows merry in time

Every rose grows merry with time

There’s never a rose grows fairer with time

These are usually paired with “Once (s)he was a true love of mine”. “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” may simply be an alternate rhyming refrain to the original.

According to Arnold Rypens, “all these herbs used to symbolize something: rosemary stood for perseverance, thyme for fecundity.” Sage is often carried or burned for protection. Martin Carthy says all the herbs mentioned were closely associated with death and that when combined they might work as a charm against “the evil eye”.

Here’s a link to Martin Carthy’s original version of Scarborough Fair from his 1965 album titled Martin Carthy, which is included on his “greatest hits” album, The Definitive Collection.



The Child Ballads

The Child Ballads are a collection of 305 folk songs from England and Scotland which were compiled by Francis James Child in the mid to late 1800’s. In researching “folk songs of the British Isles” to be included in my performing repertoire, I found that I already knew (and played) a great many of them. Not surprising, in that they are the “standards” of the genre.

I’m preparing a new album, and inquired of the friends on my Facebook page ( if any of them had suggestions for material. One friend recommended four songs – three of which were Child Ballads. My own selections for the album already included three others.

So I have now taken a slight detour from the album I had planned to make, and am in the process of recording several of the Ballads, probably to be released on their own. These are the songs I’ve selected:

Broomfield Hill, Willie’s Lady, Fair Annie, The Daemon Lover, The Wife of User’s Well, Willie of Wimsbury, Jock O’Hazeldeen, Tam Lin.

In addition, my band Celtic Mayhem, have already recorded a Child Ballad (Twa Corbies) for our new album!

Part of my research of the Child Ballads led me to a CD by the duo of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, who earlier this year released an album titled Child Ballads. The seven songs are simply arranged primarily with two acoustic guitars and little other instrumentation, but with wonderful two part vocal harmony. This is one of my favourite albums of the last several years.  Here’s a link if you’d like to give it a listen (while waiting for me to finish my album): Child Ballads.