Saturday, December 20, 2003


Simon and Garfunkel are guilty of many transgressions, chiefly of the overblown schmaltz variety. But ripping off "We Three Kings" with "Scarborough Fair," as J.B. Doubtless at Fraters Libertas recently claimed? I don't think so.

According to the "Sold on Song" page on the BBC Radio 2 website, "Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English ballad, and it's at least two centuries old; according to another source, the song dates to the late medieval era. "We Three Kings," on the other hand, was written in 1857 by an American clergyman named John Henry Hopkins, Jr. as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City. If there's any filching here, Mr. Hopkins is the guilty party.

Not that there's not much evidence of filching. Both songs, it is true, are in a minor key: Martin Carthy's rendition of "Scarborough Fair" on the BBC page (more on Carthy below) appears to be in D minor, while the sheet music for "We Three Kings" indicates E minor, though the remarkably listenable version recorded by kooky multi-instrumentalist jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk under the name "We Free Kings" is, like Carthy's "Scarborough Fair," in D minor, if my untutored ear and rudimentary ability to accompany the song on guitar are to be trusted. Both songs, it is also true, are in triple meter. And the first-line endings of both songs ("Scar-bor-ough-Fair"; "or-i-ent-are") are melodically identical: E-F-E-D (if we're in D minor, and if the foregoing caveats regarding my ear and guitar are kept in mind).

But the world is awash in minor-key triple-meter songs, and apart from those four first-line-ending notes, the two songs are completely different in character. "We Three Kings" stays close to its tonic home, moving away only by baby steps and quickly returning, and its oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah rhthym is ploddingly regular throughout: WE three KINGS of ORient ARE (pah-pah) / BEARing GIFTS we TRAverse aFAR (pah-pah). Et cetera, et cetera. This is what makes it so easy for small children, the tone-deaf, and blog readers (admit it, you were singing along just now, weren't you?) to perform, which no doubt accounts for its annoyingly enduring popularity. "Scarborough Fair," by contrast, features wider intervals (the distance from "Fair" at the end of the first line and "sage" three notes into the second line is a full octave, for example) and a less predictable beat (the accent on the first syllable of "parsley" come on the second beat of the measure rather than the first, a fillip far too subtle for the implacable Mr. Hopkins). Throw in its wistful and melancholic overall feel and you've got a song that's tailor-made for earnest folkies and the overly fey and unsingable by anyone else.

Despite all this, Simon and Garfunkel's version of "Scarborough Fair" was in fact filched. Paul Simon learned "Scarborough Fair" from the aforementioned Martin Carthy when Simon was hanging around the UK folk scene in 1965. But when Simon and Garfunkel put the song on their third album in 1966, in essentially the same form that Simon had learned from Carthy, they claimed it as their own composition, and they did nothing to correct the error when the song vaulted into prominence by way of its inclusion on "The Graduate" soundtrack the following year. Simon and Carthy made nicey-nice in 2000 when Paul invited Martin onstage to perform the song together during a London concert, and the two have recast the record company and publisher as the villains. (A summary of the spat is available on Olav Torvund's Guitar Pages.) But 25 years is an awfully long time to allow such a misconception to linger. It's not copyright infringement--the song itself is obviously in the public domain, and Carthy had no rights to his arrangement until it was fixed in a tangible medium, which seems to have postdated his teaching of the song to Simon--but it smells a lot like plagiarism. And whatever it's called, it's pretty shoddy.


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