Above: County Donegal in Ireland, from which “She Moved Through the Fair” originates.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “She Moved Through the Fair.”
I was upstairs at a pub in Bath, England on a damp February night, awaiting the start of a weekly storytelling circle. The air swirled with the sound of creaking floorboards, clinking glasses and eager chatter. At the front of the room, a bearded man gently smiled as he rose to his feet and, without a word, began fingerpicking an acoustic guitar. His rich baritone pierced through the mirthful din: “My young love said to me…” And for nearly four minutes, everything fell silent.
My young love said to me, “My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind”
And she stepped away from me and this she did say:
“It will not be long, love, ’till our wedding day”
She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her move here and move there
And then she turned homeward with one star awake
Like the swan in the evening moves over the lake
I later learned the man was David Metcalfe, a local singer-songwriter and the evening’s longtime organizer. What I couldn’t shake for weeks afterward was his mournful tune. “She Moved Through the Fair,” Metcalfe explained after his performance, is one of the most enduring folk songs to emerge from Ireland. Heritage singers and rock bands alike have recorded hundreds of interpretations, some with words and some without. At its core, the song tells a brief yet haunting story: the narrator’s lover vanishes into the ether, later reappearing to her beloved as a ghost and portending his own death. “It will not be long, love, ’till our wedding day,” she whispers again in the closing stanza, extending her promise of love into the afterworld.
It wasn’t until I heard “She Moved Through the Fair” a second time — by sheer coincidence, at a pub in Edinburgh later that same trip — that I became obsessed with tracking down its innumerable versions. The internet made it easy — not only to spend hours sifting through different recordings, which I did without hesitation, but to comprehend just how far the melody has spread over the course of its nearly 110-year history. A song search on Pandora, for example, returns a list of covers by everyone from Odetta to Josh Groban to Donovan.
Here’s what I now know: a poet and a musicologist first collected “She Moved Through the Fair” in Donegal, Ireland, in the early 20th century, and published the lyrics in 1909. Much of the song’s allure — a mysterious, enchanting quality I could never quite name — lies in its Eastern-sounding melody (or “Mixolydian mode,” for you music theorists). This may point to a more ancient history, though no one has definitively dated the song.
Until about 1960, “She Moved Through the Fair” largely remained within the realm of Celtic singers. Most learned it from a small handful of recordings made in the 1940s and 1950s, which informed the style and tone of dozens of performances thereafter. My favorite of these is Irish tenor John McCormack’s 1941 recording. Over porcelain piano, he croons the tale with a healthy dose of theatrics and plenty of heart.
The early 1960s saw the song cross over into the British (and, to a lesser extent, the American) folk scene, kicking off a wave of unique interpretations by various singer-songwriters. The guitarist Davy Graham created the most virtuosic arrangement to date, introducing a stomping rhythm and abstracting the melody rather than reproducing it outright. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would later bring the song into the world of hard rock, borrowing Graham’s technique for the song “White Summer.” Traditional arrangements quietly flourished as well during this time, as a show-stopping 1963 performance by singer Anne Briggs from the Edinburgh Folk Festival proves.
Lush productions by folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention, Trees, Pentangle and Van Morrison and the Chieftans are a highlight of the song’s late-20th century history. These groups preserved the original melody and lyrics while adding instrumental flourishes and dramatic crescendos to their performances. They’re all essential recordings, but I particularly love how Morrison begins his 1988 version by painting a cinematic picture of his (and the song’s) home country. Sweeps of strings, flutes and harps evoke the coastline of Donegal before fading back into a trance-like pedal tone.
Still, even after combing through a small mountain of covers, I’m transported back to southwest England every time I hear “She Moved Through the Fair” — to that warm, crowded pub on a February night, sitting in stunned silence. That first performance, experienced only once, remains the definitive version in my mind, just as your first encounter with this beautiful song may very well be yours.