I have always liked Simon & Garfunkel’s version of the old English ballad “Scarborough Fair,” but have never understood what “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” have to do with going to a fair, unless the gathering features agricultural products like herbs.
The ballad goes back to at least the 17th century, and has to do with a young man who sends word to his lover, asking her to perform several impossible tasks, such as making him a cambric shirt without any seams or visible needlework.
The plot probably passed many of us by, and I suspect most folks assumed that Simon & Garfunkel had written the song, rather than reprising an ancient tune. For most of us, the meaning is in the memory. We may not know what the song is about, but we remember how we felt when we first heard it, and what was going on in our lives. For some of us, perhaps, it offered a back-to-nature link for folks who walked on the fringes of the counter-culture but weren’t ready to become full-blown hippies.
The herbal anthem finds expression in our gardens, along with places more odd but clearly inspired by pleasant memories of the song.
And, whether you understand the significance of “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” or not, I suspect the tune is now running around in your head, along with the haunting harmonies for which Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were famous. If you’re lucky, it won’t become an earworm for the rest of the day. Whether it does or not, perhaps it’s worth considering that something doesn’t have to make perfect sense in order to be remembered — for good or ill.
Stewardship of the tongue is an important virtue.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.