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The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

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The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

When an artist puts a definitive stamp on a song, it can sometimes obscure the history behind its writing. Such is the case with Roberta Flack’s languorous, luscious performance of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Flack included it on a 1969 album titled "First Take," where it languished relatively unknown until it appeared in the 1971 Clint Eastwood flick "Play Misty For Me." A year later it was released as a single, becoming a #1 Billboard hit for a stunning six-week run at number one on both the pop and adult contemporary charts while peaking at number four R&B in the spring of 1972. Its success spurred the two-year-old 'First Take' to gold status. The song won Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The song's origins, however, are neither pop nor R&B. British communist folksinger Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) wrote the ballad in 1957 for the woman he loved: American folksinger Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of Pete Seeger. There are two different versions of the story of its origins. MacColl, who died thirty years ago, used to say that he had sung it down the telephone to Peggy, who was on tour at the time in America. He had been forced to stay behind in England because the US authorities believed he was too dangerous a subversive to be given a visa, and he claimed to have composed it off-the-cuff when Peggy said she needed a two-and-a-half- minute song to fill a gap in her show.

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Roberta Flack - "First Take", album 1969

 

Peggy Seeger had met MacColl in 1956; she was 20, he was 40 and married - for the second time - with a young son. They started an affair, and at the beginning of 1957 Seeger returned to her father's house in California. 'Things were so confused between me and Ewan that I went home,' she says. 'He used to send me tapes with him talking on them, and one of them had him singing 'The First Time Ever' on it . . . The intensity of it quite frightened me.'

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Peggy Seeger

 

Seeger’s description of how they fell in love is far from starry or sweet. He had, she recalls, a 'hairy, fat, naked belly poking out, and was clad in ill-fitting trousers, suspenders, no shirt, a ragged jacket and a filthy lid of stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can.' On their first night together he couldn’t get it up. The second time round there was time for a quickie. 'I was discomfited but compliant.'

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Ewan MacColl

 

MacColl’s lyrics are an ode to the heady rush of new romance. The outsized poetic imagery in the song is perfectly in tune with that first flush of excitement and rapture. So it’s understandable that the narrator believes that his lover’s eyes command the heavens and her kiss moves the Earth. When he makes love to her for the first time, all of these assumptions are verified; there can be no doubt that “our joy/ Would fill the earth/ And last till the end of time.” Ewan MacColl must have loved Peggy Seeger very much because this description of a tentative first kiss is achingly beautiful…the “trembling heart of a captive bird” line especially so.

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Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl

 

While the lyrics are tender and heartfelt, the tune is what elevates the song, literally and figuratively. The melodic leap it takes in each verse mirrors that emotional surge that shakes the narrator to his core every time he shares a novel experience with this woman. MacColl might have known that this leap would perfectly suit Seeger’s vocal range when she performed it, but that soaring turn in the song was likely a manifestation of his feelings for her as well.

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Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl

 

The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by the Kingston Trio on their 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, and by Gordon. MacColl made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: "He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled 'The Chamber of Horrors'. He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace."

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Kingston Trio - "New Frontier", album, 1962

 

Roberta Flack came along, slowed the song down dramatically, and somehow connected with it in a way none of the other performers up to that point in time had. And while it’s true that Roberta Flack does something very obvious with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by slowing it down so much, what she does is much more than that fairly superficial change. In a 2012 interview with Jazzwax, Flack told an interviewer she later met Seeger, who praised her interpretation, saying she felt Flack's version was "exactly what Ewan wanted to say."

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Roberta Flack - “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, single, 1972

 

Seeger confessed to Mojo that she wasn’t keen on Flack’s famous take on the song, even if she appreciated the royalties they brought in to her as MacColl’s widow. While MacColl and Seeger are closer to the song than anybody else and their opinions are hard-earned, it’s still difficult to question Roberta Flack’s decision to slow the song’s pace down and luxuriate in the moments it describes. And it’s hard to mess up a tune as pretty as this. In practically any version, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” endures as a song that resonates with anyone who’s ever been floored by the initial impact of love.

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Peggy Seeger

 

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, lyrics


The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the end of the skies

And the first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hand
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last, till the end of time, my love

The first time ever I saw your face
Your face
Your face
Your face

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Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl

 

 

 

 

Roberta Flack - First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

Last Updated (Friday, 31 May 2019 21:21)

 

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