The two Bob Dylan songs inspired by ‘Scarborough Fair’

The beauty of folk music lies in its evolutionary nature, with songs developing orally over the years, often stemming from unknown origins. Humans have sung together for centuries, using music to unite communities or retain morale while working. However, records of these pieces began to emerge in the 1800s, and by the 20th century, the folk genre was one of the most popular forms of music.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the folk revival reached its peak, with artists such as Odetta, Woody Guthrie, and Elizabeth Cotten becoming some of the most influential names in the genre. By the 1960s, artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel defined folk. While these artists wrote original compositions, they also gave traditional folk compositions their own spin.

Dylan was no stranger to singing folk standards, with his self-titled debut album, released in 1962, almost exclusively containing covers, apart from ‘Song to Woody’ and ‘Talkin’ New York’. However, on his following album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer demonstrated his songwriting abilities with mainly original compositions, apart from ‘Corrina, Corrina’ and ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’.

Yet, Dylan paid homage to the folk tradition by interweaving the standard ‘Scarborough Fair’ into one of the songs, ‘Girl From the North Country’. The song was inspired by his trip to England, where he met artists like Martin Carthy. The singer proved to be a vital inspiration for Dylan. In 1984, he explained: “I ran into some people in England who really knew those [traditional English] songs. Martin Carthy, another guy named [Bob] Davenport. Martin Carthy’s incredible. I learned a lot of stuff from Martin.”

Here, he discovered ‘Scarborough Fair’, a piece that can be traced back to the mid-1800s, although it contains similarities to ‘The Elfin Knight’, which has its roots in the 1600s. However, the version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ popularised in the 1960s was collected in the 1940s. ‘Girl From the North Country’ even borrows a line from the song, “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine.”

‘Scarborough Fair’ has since been covered by various artists, most notably Simon and Garfunkel, who also learnt it from Carthy. Covered by the likes of Marianne Faithfull to the Delfonics and Lana Del Rey, ‘Scarborough Fair’ remains one of the most recognisable folk standards out there.

Dylan was so inspired by the track he reused the melody for another song a year later, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. The tender acoustic guitar-led track appeared on his album The Times They Are-a-Changing, and follows a conversation between a couple as they find themselves separated by distance. The use of the same melody in both ‘Girl From the North Country’ and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ has even led some fans to speculate that the two songs are connected.

Listen to both below.

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