Every time I think about Kirsty MacColl…as I was the other day while writing about “Fairytale Of New York”…I always think about her dad’s greatest contribution to popular music.
Ewan MacColl, outside the revolutionary protest song-loving segment of the British folk music community, isn’t the best known artist who ever lived. But for the last 40 years, one of the songs he wrote… “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”…is seared deep into the memory of anyone who’s fallen in love.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was written a surprisingly long time ago, in 1957. Ewan MacColl wrote it for fellow folk singer Peggy Seeger, with whom he was infatuated, and would later marry.
It got some attention during the 1960s across the folk, and folk-inspired, community, but it wasn’t until Roberta Flack’s version in 1972 that “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” would rocket up the charts around the world, and burrow into the consciousness of star-crossed lovers everywhere.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” would go on to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the Grammy’s in 1972. Billboard Magazine also ranked it as their number one single of the year.
In part, that was because of the very useful publicity Clint Eastwood provided when he used Roberta Flack’s version of the song in his 1971 film “Play Misty For Me”.
But, continuing the “slow burn” story of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, the version that Clint Eastwood used, and which would go on to become a major international hit, was recorded by Roberta Flack back in 1969…three years before it hit the top of the charts.
Earlier versions had been delivered at a slightly more lively pace, but Roberta Flack slowed the song down so much that her treatment brought a wonderfully hesitant and tender feel to this story of the first encounter between two lovers.
I’m sure that’s what made Roberta Flack’s version such a big hit. She brought out a different side to the “boy meets girl” story. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was already a nice song…Peter, Paul and Mary had covered it, and done a perfectly creditable version (here if you’d like a listen)…as had Gordon Lightfoot, in addition to Peggy Seeger herself, of course.
Most of the leading folk-inspired artists of the 1950s and 60s, together with plenty of people from other musical traditions, recorded Ewan MacColl’s delightful song before Roberta Flack ever got hold of it. But, apart from the obviously more gentle pace, she brought that indefinable extra quality which takes an already good song and makes it into a world-beater.
It helped that Roberta Flack had great material to work with…who could resist lyrics like these…
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 endless skies
Now, I know I’m an old romantic at heart…but I remember being a young romantic when I first heard Roberta Flack sing these words and was immediately impacted by Ewan MacColl’s beautiful lyrics.
The first time I heard the song, I wasn’t even in love with anyone, and never had been, so I was working with my image of what that might feel like, rather than any direct experience of it. But it did feel like the sort of thing I hoped I’d experience one day.
Whether or not “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” has influenced my views on how to fall in love, for as long as I can remember I’ve looked deep into the eyes of girls I’ve been interested in…not in a creepy way, I hope…to see if the sun and the moon and the stars were all twinkling away in there somewhere.
Ewan MacColl isn’t finished with our heartstrings yet, though…if anything verse two tops every the first verse in the “song lyrics that bring a tear to my eye” stakes…
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
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. That’s certainly been my experience of a first kiss with someone you think might have a special part to play in your life.
To realise what a great performance Roberta Flack produced, you have to remember that plenty of excellent performers had sung the exact same words before…artists like Peggy Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot and Peter, Paul and Mary were at the pinnacle of their respective professional careers when they recorded “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” but none of them made an international hit record out of it (Peter, Paul and Mary’s version here if you’d like to compare).
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.
That’s why I love music so much. You can sing the same lines, and play the same notes, as another artist, but your version can be a hit around the world while theirs languishes as an obscure track on a long-forgotten album.
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.
The other artists — great performers all of them — sing the notes really beautifully. Yet Roberta Flack somehow connects with the song in a way that nobody else does.
She sings all the notes too…but the way she sings them lets us know that she “gets” the essence of the song in a way that nobody else manages to do.
And that is the hallmark of an exceptional performer. When you match an exceptional performer with a song as beautifully written as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, you know you’re in for something special.
Give Roberta Flack’s version of this beautiful song another listen, even though I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before today…I hope it takes you back to a time in the past when your lips first gently brushed against the lips of someone very special to you, and the stars twinkled in their eyes in return…
The video is below but, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0SxFyA4FqmEQqZVuAlg8lf
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.