John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

Roberta Flack’s slow seductive style creates a truly haunting song.

By - Oct 16th, 2017 04:21 pm
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Roberta Flack. Photo from Facebook.

Roberta Flack. Photo from Facebook.

We may have to listen to lullabies for a while. Things have been particularly jarring as of late. Not just last week or last month — we’re pushing a couple years, really. With grating nerves and grinding teeth, we walk around with our shoulders up around our ears and jump at sudden noises. That’s no way to live.

Music helps a lot. It shows you the better side of human nature and reminds us we are, on some level, spiritual beings. I keep away from organized religion, having mustered out long ago. But music does a better job of inspiring me when stress and strife fill the air. Having just listened to Roberta Flack’s stunning interpretation of Ewan McColl’s beautiful ballad, ”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” I feel more optimistic. I watched a couple live performances that were nice examples of her poised and polished take on the song, but the recorded version, with her voice out front, taken at a dirge-like tempo, is haunting. There are three short verses in four minutes. It’s the very definition of languid, allowing time and space for the words to resonate. And she sings so far behind the beat there are moments where you worry if she’ll get the next one out in time. When she finally gets around to singing them, it’s well worth the added wait. These lyrics could have been written hundreds of years ago, and should be around as long as humans are still human.

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 endless skies

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

© Ewan McColl

The verses, so romantic and sensual, the face, eyes, mouth and heart as viewed in a trance of love. Intimate and sensual, they’re twined around an unforgettable melody like two lovers. This man knew how to woo. Ewan MacColl was a British folk singer. His third wife, who survives him, is Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s sister, a folk singer and activist every bit as talented as you would expect for someone with that last name. MacColl was also the father to one of my favorite artists, the late Kirsty MacColl. In Britain MacColl and Seeger were folk royalty. Their story started with a scandal that would play well in Us or People. He left his second wife and two young children for Seeger, 20 years his junior. He wrote “First Time…” for her. You might know him for another one of his songs, famously covered by the Pogues, “Dirty Old Town.” That one is a rouser best heard in a rowdy pub with a pint in your hand.

The ocean between MacColl and Flack was enormous. She grew up in the Gospel church (surprise!) and took to singing and playing the piano early. She was good enough to be awarded a scholarship to Howard University, where she continued to study classical music. After school her career got off to a slow start. There were a lot of reasons, including the death of her father and family duty. But it was inevitable a talent like hers would be discovered and, after moving to DC and singing in clubs there, people, some stars among them, began to notice. How she came upon that song, I’m not aware, but I’m so glad she did. Maybe she heard Peter, Paul and Mary sing it, in a nice version that featured the smooth harmonizing that was their trademark. When Flack’s version came out, it sat around for a while until Clint Eastwood used it in his 1971 movie, Play Misty For Me. That did the trick. It rocketed up to #1, won song of the year and put her on the map.

This song is pre-industrial, with no references to modern culture or technology; it’s the opposite of trendy. Someone else was doing something similar at the time — Bill Withers had a hit the year before with “Ain’t No Sunshine.” These two throwback artists constituted a mini folk revival of sorts amid the glam rock and proto-disco on the charts.

So thank you, Roberta Flack for not resorting to showy mannerisms, acrobatics or other kinds of blatant manipulation — you gave us one for the ages. Readers, if you want to escape the background noise coming from all directions, you might try a walk in a quiet woods. Or if you don’t have the time, listen to this song. Maybe you can do both.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face””

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    My favorite line from this song is: “Like the trembling heart of a captive bird”, and I remember the first time I heard Roberta Flack’s draw-out, breathless version – just ecstasy for any romantic who believes in new hope when having met the true Other! What an amazing song, so heartfelt and sincere, and I never knew before that it was written by a fold singer. A song that defies categorization!

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    How does one edit typos here, in the comments? Up above I meant “drawn-out”, not “draw-out”, and “folk singer”, not “fold singer”!

  3. Marilyn Holbus says:

    Very interesting background history, Pete…had no clue about the British connection. Music lifts me every day in this current chaos of a world. By the way: the late British singer,George Michael, does an admirable job on this song on his Songs From The Last Century album.

  4. John Sieger says:

    Thanks for all the comments. This one really is pure joy. I was vaguely aware of the Sea Shanty, but had no idea it was movement! Beach Boys must have scooped up Sloop John B from one of them. My fave is (I think) Monty Python’s “Accountancy Shanty!”

  5. Dean J Calin says:

    Ewan MacColl was one of the big names in the sea shanty (and folk music) revival that happened, largely in England, in the mid-50s. He was a colorful and controversial character, well remembered in today’s maritime music genre. Those songs are still very much alive in dozens of festivals all over Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

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