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The CHIRP Blog

Clarence Ewing: The Million Year Trip writesTake Two: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Peggy Seeger Vs. Roberta Flack)

There is a chance that you have come across a song (or two, or so many more) that you enjoy and did not realize that it's either been covered by someone else or is a cover itself. We hope that this series allows you to appreciate both the original and the covers they have inspired, and to seek out and enjoy new music in the process.

The Original: 1957 single (also appears on the compilation The Folkways Years 1955-1992: Songs of Love and Politics)

The original version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was written by Scottish singer and activist Ewan MacColl. The song’s subject matter was a bit of a departure for him, as he was mainly known for his political and protest songs. The vocalist is Peggy Seeger, who would often perform the song with MacColl in England. The two would eventually marry, once MacColl got divorced from the woman to whom he was then wed.

The song is made up of Seeger’s voice and MacColl’s arpeggioed guitar lines, evoking a rustic mood with that certain woozy, hallucinogenic feel that separates it from traditional folk tunes. It’s the kind of arrangement that was right in line with the folksy style that was just becoming popular among listeners.

Pop music’s acoustic-based titans (The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul & Mary; etc.) were just getting started, and their styles (derived from what musicians like MacColl and Seeger were doing) would become essential sounds of the 1960s. Current musicians like Mike and Cara Gangloff, whose music has even more of a psychedelic-pastoral edge, can also trace their roots to songs like this.

The Cover: from the album First Take (1969)

Roberta Flack chose to cover this song as part of her debut album. What makes her rendition very different from the original as well as almost all other R&B hits of the time is its aggressively slow tempo. Flack was advised to speed up her version, because as a general rule pop songs don’t run this slow. But she heard something special in this cadence, so she stuck to her guns and went with it. Rather than being a problem, the pace is perfect for getting across the feel and meaning of the words.

Also in Flack’s version, the guitar is joined by bass, piano, and strings, giving the music more atmosphere. The centerpiece is Flack’s vocals. This is not the kind of performance that lends itself to other remakes, as it takes a confident singer with the chops to handle the sustained phrasing and dramatic volume changes as beautifully as Flack does.

The song has been trimmed many times for radio airplay; Make sure to find the original 5 minute version to get the full effect of the song’s stillness and power.

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Categorized: Take Two

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