"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 hypothesis 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 (Child Ballad ), 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 "For thou must shape a sark to me / Without any cut or heme, quoth he"; she responds with a list of tasks that he must first perform ("I have an aiker of good ley-land / Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand").
The melody is very typical of the middle English period.
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, and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, Child Ballad, which has a similar plot. A number of older versions refer to locations other than Scarborough Fair, including Wittingham Fair, Cape Ann, "twixt Berwik and Lyne", etc. Many versions do not mention a place-name, and are often generically titled "The Lovers' Tasks", "My Father Gave Me an Acre of Land", etc.).