The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face - Roberta Flack / Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
I thought we should cop some more flack while we are on the subject. We should always thank the ones who lead us to the originals. "First Take" was released in 1969, and hadn't sold many copies until Clint Eastwood heard "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" on his car radio and decided to include it in his directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me". The film's plot revolves around a late night deejay (Eastwood) who reads poetry on air and plays moody songs. He receives recurring phone calls from a woman asking him to play "Misty" - an instrumental track by jazz pianist Erroll Garner - and later meets her and they have an affair. When Clint tries to extricate himself from the relationship she turns out to have psychopathic tendencies and keeps trying to kill him and later his ex with whom he is now reunited. Interesting switch, wherein Eastwood becomes the would be victim rather than the usual death dispenser of Spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry movies. I've never quite worked out why there's never been a late night deejay who spouts literature - husky voiced - and makes links with the tracks he's playing. After all, poetry was originally set to music and still is written to be read. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is played over the love sequence where he falls in love (again) with his ex.
The film came out in 1972, three years after the album First Take", and propelled both the song and the LP to number one in the US charts and Roberta Flack to international success.
The song, though, had been knocking around, mainly in folk circles, ever since 1957. It was written by British folk singer Ewan MacColl about and for Peggy Seeger. Peggy had impressive folk music pedigree, her brother being the legendary Pete Seeger and her job being assistant to the seminal folk music collector Alan Lomax, with whom she had come to England. There was much harrumphing as MacColl was twenty years her senior (she was only 21 years old) and he left his wife and two children for her. However, they stayed together for the next 32 years until MacColl's death in 1989.
Flack's version begins delicately, with with soft, tinkling piano and accoustic guitar, her vocal sounding like someone wondering at the magic of it all, while looking out, unseeing, through a wet window on a rainy Sunday afternoon with the sunlight shining through. There's no doubt the song is very sensual, brimming full of the gentleness of making love, yet with each verse ending in a climatic moment. Its very slowness gives space to Roberta's build-ups, allowing the song to take on a grandeur that exalts their love.
However, after the first few listens, the simple majesty of the original eclipses Flack's version and becomes as simple, as simultaneously relaxed and intense, as an old super eight movie, clickety clacking from reel to reel, while the silent figures move unconcernedly in a of scene of long ago. Peggy Seeger's vocal is something that Roberta's never is, sweet and intimate, as is MacColl's guitar, and Flack doesn't notice that the killer line is at the beginning, not the the end:
"....and the moon and stars were the gift you gave
to the dark and empty skies my love
to the dark and empty skies."