Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Paul Simon, a 'Stolen Song' and How British Folk Star Finally Forgave Him

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Paul Simon, a 'Stolen Song' and How British Folk Star Finally Forgave Him

Article excerpt


EARLY in 1965, way past midnight, a diminutive figure in donkey jacket and jeans ambled on stage with his acoustic guitar. The singer was new in town and his name was Paul Simon. Nearly 40 years later his return as a superstar stirs bitter memories among Britain's folk fraternity. Many cannot forgive him for "stealing" one of his best known tunes from a British folk legend - a controversy that they call the Scarborough Fair saga.

A native New Yorker, Simon came to London at the end of 1964 and rented a flat in Belsize Park. His first album with old school friend Art Garfunkel had flopped in America so he decided to try his luck as a solo singer on England's thriving folk scene. Throughout 1965 he was a familiar figure in pubs, folk clubs and working men's clubs all over Britain, scraping by on a meagre [pounds sterling]20 a week with a repertoire including The Sound Of Silence and I Am A Rock.

Les Cousins, or simply Cousins (no one used the French pronunciation) was the unofficial headquarters of London's underground folk scene - a dingy basement in Greek Street where fans came to see Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Al Stewart, Sandy Denny and Julie Felix, Roy Harper and John Martyn. Occasionally they would welcome a visitor from America, such as Bob Dylan or James Taylor.

Folk singer Linda Thompson recalls: "I remember seeing Paul Simon sing several times. He was a great guitar player and a good singer, with those marvellous songs, but nobody had any inkling he would sell so many records - not even him."

The 23-year-old Simon, often sitting in the front row with another rising singer songwriter, Donovan, listened with admiration and soaked up the atmosphere - and the songs.

But many feel he never quite fitted in with the underground folk scene, where authenticity was cherished over the sweet pop flavour which Simon injected into his songs.

Ralph McTell, later known for his hit Streets Of London, recalls Simon " skulking around Soho in his donkey jacket" during his year in London. "He had a reputation as a miserable little man and was not popular among the other musicians," he recalls.

Guitar virtuoso Bert Jansch, 60, adds: "We used to do gigs together at places like Brentwood Folk Club. But I was not a keen lover of his music - or of him.

He did rub my back up a little bit: he had a slightly arrogant nature and it was common knowledge that he had taken Martin Carthy's arrangement of Scarborough Fair."

Simon became enchanted by Carthy's rendition of a traditional song commemorating a 13th-century fair where peasants would buy herbs - parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme - to ward off evil spirits.

Carthy, now an MBE and regarded as the father of the British Sixties folk revival, had devised a pretty guitar arrangement for the tune. And at Simon's request he wrote it down for him. It was a typical act of charity by Carthy, but one for which he would not receive credit in what many regard as an act of theft.

The song became a staple of Simon's repertoire during-his yearlong stay in England, which ended abruptly in December 1965 when The Sound Of Silence - given a Byrds-style electric treatment by producer Tom Wilson in his absence - went to number one in the US singles charts. "I remember Paul telling us he had signed a major deal and was going back to America," says Jansch. "He had a farewell do at the Hilton... And that was the last any of us saw or heard of him."

Simon immediately reunited with Garfunkel to pioneer a new folk-rock style.

A year later Scarborough Fair appeared on their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, And Thyme - featuring the same guitar arrangement "borrowed" from Carthy - and in 1968 became probably the best known folk song of all time when it was featured on Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack for the movie The Graduate. But the tune was credited only to Simon and Garfunkel, meaning Carthy never received a penny as arranger. …

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