“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

Musically, this song is the most complex thus far (on the playlist I gave my Lit for Musicians class), although it begins deceptively simply. After the introduction of the main melody, one voice splits off into the counterpoint, a simple song that makes a political point about the human side of war. Juxtaposing this against the folk melody is lyrically jarring, but also ironic in the context of the lush tight harmonies and nearly archaic harpsichord and guitar background.

This also was the first time I was aware of overdubbing. Paul Simon is singing both counterpoint and melody, which confused me when I first heard it, then lead to a lot of experimenting with my guitar and a tape recorder with me singing harmony with myself. It was fascinating and challenging.

I’m intensely political. There’s a decent chance that this song is part of the reason. As an pre-teen, hearing them personalize war, with the obvious implications about the Vietnam war, also lead me to questioning and thinking. Even now, about 4 decades later, I find myself thinking about the imagery and ideas.

I’ve seen Simon and Garfunkel in person, and I was disappointed that although they sang “Scarborough Fair,” they didn’t do the “Canticle.” I haven’t heard them sing that for years, and I suspect that the reason is that the time has passed for those gentle images and sounds to resonant with audiences; the politcal rhetoric now is loud and confrontational, not thought-provokingly metaphoric.

Like The Beatles, Simon and Gar are musicians who could show up in my playlist multiple times. They are fundamental, foundational parts of the soundtrack running in my brain. And like The Beatles, their sound morphs and changes, so this song is only representative of one phase of their careers, both as a duo and solo.

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