Sunday, September 4, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: Scarborough Fair/ Canticle

Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair/ Canticle


The music of Simon and Garfunkel seems to me to be the obvious place to start a week devoted to vocal harmonies. Originally inspired by the doo-wop groups of the 1950s, Simon and Garfunkel also were aware of harmony as used in folk music, and I would say that the song I have chosen may also shows that they knew at least a little about classical music as well. Let me explain.

There are three schemes of vocal harmonies that come to my mind. In close harmony, the singers are together rhythmically, but they sing different notes to make chords. This is the basis for doo-wop, and it is found in the call-and-response parts in gospel music as well. Then there are rounds. Here, different voices sing the same notes at different times, and that is where the harmonies arise from. Johann Sebastien Bach took this type of harmony to its logical extreme in his fugues.

The third scheme is what Simon and Garfunkel did with Scarborough Fair/ Canticle. The song has a main melody, (in this case Scarborough Fair), and a counter melody, (in this case, a completely different song, Canticle). Counter melodies are fairly rare in pop music, so this was a daring choice for Simon and Garfunkel. The results in terms of reception are mixed. On the one hand, the song was a hit, and a little known folk song, Scarborough Fair, became famous. On the other hand, most people tend to forget about Canticle entirely, and most covers of Scarborough Fair omit the counter melody. Personally, I would never want to be without it. Simon and Garfunkel linked these two songs, and I can never hear one in my head without the other.

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