Friday, April 24, 2009

Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"


A few months back, I mentioned in one of these weekend videos posts that I didn't intend to do any really high profile songs by the Kingston Trio that became famous in subsequent versions because I thought there just wouldn't be enough variety in the performances to justify the time and effort - and I specifically mentioned "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as an example of such a song.

Well, doing these video reports has been an education for me, and I've found a wide variety of interpretations in songs that I would have guessed had really only one basic arrangement, even really common ones like Scotch and Soda or Greenback Dollar or Someday Soon.

So it was a revelation to me to find out just how many different ways that artists have found to present this classic love song, penned by the late great Ewan MacColl as a paean to his great love (but at the time, not his wife) Peggy Seeger (the couple pictured at left) and first brought to wide attention in the U.S. by the Kingston Trio, whose New Frontier album including the song sold several hundred thousand copies.

I had heard of MacColl several years before this because one of the treasures of my boyhood was the pair of Vanguard albums from the Newport Folk Festival of 1960, which featured MacColl as a solo (doing what many consider the definitive recorded version of the classic Scots traditional ballad "Lang A-Growing," though Liam Clancy's version is also highly regarded) and as a duo with Seeger, performing a topical song that was one of my favorites of the era and covered by many other folk artists, "The Springhill Mine Disaster" about an actual event in Nova Scotia in 1958.

MacColl had a fine, strong, masculine voice with a burr that you could cut with a knife (see appendix), and he projected the same kind of image through a tumultuous fifty year career as a radical labor organizer, street actor, folk song collector, performer, and composer of excellent traditional-sounding songs like "Springhill" and "Dirty Old Town" and "Freeborn Man" and my favorite, "The Shoals of Herring." He was in an unhappy second marriage when he met Peggy Seeger in Britain, and the two began an open affair that created a scandal at the time that even a subsequent marriage never quite completely erased. According to legend, Seeger phoned MacColl requesting that he write a love song for a play that she was to appear in; he wrote the song both for and about her in less than an hour, called her back, and taught it over the phone.

So the first public performance of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was actually by its inspiration, Peggy Seeger, who performs it here from about 1961:



and more recently in a live performance here:



Intrepid song sleuths Shane, Reynolds, and Stewart knew a good number when they heard it, but they also knew that the slightly PG rating of the third verse ("the first time ever I lay with you") probably wouldn't fly with their wholesome image, so they changed the wording to "ever I held you close" in addition to shifting the tempo and emphasis of the melody a bit. Combined with a stunningly effective guitar duet (and I'm betting on a John Stewart arrangement of that) and impeccably tasteful harmonies, "The First Time" is one of the prettiest numbers that the Kingston Trio ever recorded:



A wonderful version now from the other great folk trio of the era, Peter, Paul and Mary - here from a 1965 BBC show when the group was at the height of its popularity and prestige:



After the KT but before Roberta Flack ten years later, Johnny Cash recorded a version that some feel was among his most effective ballad recordings. This video is a personal montage of anniversary pictures set to Cash:



Later in his career - but before he lost his voice and became a caricature of himself - Elvis Presley came to the song and put his distinctive, soulful stamp on it. Like Bob Shane, Elvis had a marvelously rich, natural baritone with an instinctive vibrato - a truly gifted singer:



You can't talk about this song without acknowledging the truly inspired singing and fabulous, operatically-trained voice of Roberta Flack, with whom this song will ever be associated:



Sublime is the only word for this. Would you like a barometer of how far popular culture has sunk since 1972? Without the Kate Moss anorexic, Barbie-doll looks preferred today - how far would Flack get on American Idol? Let Celine Dionne and Lauryn Hill and the rest of them over-sing their over-produced versions - Flack's is the benchmark performance.

I want you to know that I searched thirty-plus pages into the YouTube results to find these next videos. Three instrumentals - first - acoustic guitar in an open tuning, derived from Bert Jansch by Chumblefish:



Jazz sax by CooolJazzz - really sweet:



Finally, slide guitar from "Shakey":



I have to say that I'd take any one of the least of these renditions over any of the aforementioned hyper-orchestrated mishmashes that come out of pop music today.

Appendix:

Here's what Ewan MacColl sounded like - nice radical union song,"My Old Man":

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