335 versions of "The first time ever I saw your face"
August 30, 2010 10:03 PM   Subscribe

So, I was looking for a version of "The first time ever I saw your face" to send to a friend.

Ewan MacColl wrote "The first time ever I saw your face" for Peggy Seeger, and they performed it regularly (Previously). Peter, Paul and Mary sang it in the sixties. I came of age to Robert Flack's sultry 70's version, which was a big hit—and soon became a schmaltz standard, covered by lounge singers everywhere, including multi-track Elvis; even Johnny Cash couldn't resist this particular siren call. It was only a matter of time before Celine Dion would get around to it. And then there is the Gregorian Chant version.

But there's goodness out there: including early Gordon Lightfoot (fairly faithful to MacColl and Seeger), MeFi's own John Brownlow (unSane)'s back to the original speed version, and my current favorite, by Kira Skov and Marie Fisker.

This, however, may be the the best of the web.

All music links go to YouTube. You could buy 335 MP3 versions at Amazon if you liked.
posted by willF (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget about Marcia Griffiths!
posted by stachemaster at 10:12 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was born in 1976, so here's how I remember the song. Forever ruined.
posted by peep at 10:33 PM on August 30, 2010

Man, has Gregorian Chant ever changed since I was last hanging out in monasteries. Not that I'm dissing it or anything. Those Benedictines sure could have done with a bit of synth and some tinkly bells.
posted by Ahab at 10:40 PM on August 30, 2010

I listen to Roberta Flack's First Take album constantly. I never realized the single was written by a folk purist, and I am a folkie!
posted by captainsohler at 10:51 PM on August 30, 2010

Cold Cut did something very cool with Roberta Flack's take way back when (the mid 90s, I think).

Hang on till the 1:00 point. Worth the wait.
posted by philip-random at 10:52 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thomascow had me with the upside down heads.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:03 PM on August 30, 2010

Way Out West made this into The Gift, which is my favorite song of all time.

Scott Henry used to play that song on the patio at Buzz in DC every time he played. Nothing better than hearing "The Moon And the Stars... Are the Gifts He Gave...", with the moon in the sky, as the rave was winding down, and dawn was breaking over the Capitol Building.
posted by empath at 11:08 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thomas Cow has a whole lot of videos.

i have watched several of them now and... uh... there sure are a lot of them. Yep.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:11 PM on August 30, 2010

Bert Jansch does a no bad version.
posted by the cuban at 12:51 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first time I heard either version was when scanning through this (slightly strange) list of "The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time" from Mojo magazine. They apparently invited in a panel of songwriters to help them compile this.

Sorry about the Oil of Ulay thing peep - that is pretty traumatic.
posted by rongorongo at 1:49 AM on August 31, 2010

Another one here who knew nothing of the song's origin: just always assumed, I guess, that Roberta Flack wrote it. So thanks for clueing me in with this post, willF.

I have to chuckle when I hear the term "folk purist". I mean, here's a guy who wrote a song. An original song. Now, wouldn't a true folk "purist" not even write any of his own songs? I mean, what's any more "folk" about a Ewan MacColl song, than, say, a David Bowie song? Is it just because a guy like Ewan Maccoll calls himself a "folk singer"? Furthermore, way too many self-appointed "folk purists" are deeply unaware of the often non-"folk" (that is to say "music biz") origins of some of their beloved folk classics. Interestingly, in this case, what this fellow deemed his *folk song* became an enormous pop hit. So, hey, Ewan, dude, lighten up! It's all just music, you see!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:50 AM on August 31, 2010

What helped break out Roberta Flack's version of "First Time" was its featured position in the soundtrack of the movie "Play Misty for Me", during the movie's one sex scene. It was the only Clint Eastwood movie of the period in which he wasn't kicking anybody else's ass. He played an FM disc jockey stalked by a deranged fan. I remember seeing it at "Movie Night" on campus at a rather conservative college I was attending (which shall remain nameless because I transferred out of that crap college at the first opportunity even though they'd given me a scholarship). It was the first R-rated movie the administration approved, probably assuming if it was Clint, it got its R for violence (which they didn't mind), not sex (which they did). Wrong move. I was also involved with the college radio station, which, when we heard the movie was about a disc jockey, tied it into a recruiting drive. Another wrong move. ("Get into radio! Get yourself attacked by a crazy lady with a big knife!") I did notice the "First Time" scene was set up so that all the nudity was during the third verse, so it could be Edited for Television the same way the "short radio version" was.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:12 AM on August 31, 2010

Cold Hang on till the 1:00 point. Worth the wait.

philip-random, interestingly this was exactly the version that came to mind for me when I saw the post about this song. I'd say the moment to hang on for, though, is around 2m30s - still sends shivers down my spine, Roberta Flack into Harold Budd into Photek... Coldcut, turntablists like no other...
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 2:35 AM on August 31, 2010

I'm still partial to Emma Thompson's version from an episode of Cheers.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:46 AM on August 31, 2010

And Ewan MacColl was also father to Kirsty.
posted by Man-Thing at 3:51 AM on August 31, 2010

I first found out about this song from Old Dirty Bastard (on the intro to Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version), who was performing a drunken homage to Blowfly, singing: "The First Time Ever You Sucked My D**k", which, in turn is a parody of Roberta Flack's cover of Peggy Seeger.

Homage of a parody of a cover. Plus pornography.
posted by The Giant Squid at 4:21 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Roberta kills me softly with her song. Or any other version.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:26 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of those songs where I find myself distinctly at odds with most people. I simply cannot abide it. It's like nails down a blackboard for me. I find it painfully overwrought and actually embarrassing to listen to. I always lump it together with "Killing Me Softly" because both songs have exactly the same effect on me. I find them actually uncomfortable and squirm-inducing to listen to.

Not trying to rain on the parade, honestly, I just always find it interesting how certain songs seem to teeter on the edge between listener ecstasy and revulsion. Songs that are like the musical equivalent of brussels sprouts or garlic. Or something.
posted by Decani at 4:51 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Robert Flack's sultry 70's version

Is there any other Roberta Flack version of ANY song other than a sultry one? I mean, have you ever heard of Roberta Flack's nasally, screeched version of Where is the Love or Roberta Flack's guttural, barked version of Gone Away?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:01 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Decani, I completely understand, especially given many of the the overwrought covers. It is an interesting song just because it "teeter[s] on the edge between listener ecstasy and revulsion." And, like Sauce-Bearnaise Syndrome, I suspect if you have a bad experience with it, you'll continue to do so. I love the Roberta Flack version, but can understand why it could easily be an aversion. But may I suggest trying to listen to Peggy Seeger's version, and John Brownlow's? It might clear your palate.

And Tom Mellee: I like Cash's cover so much better on second hearing. Thanks for linking to it.
posted by willF at 7:16 AM on August 31, 2010

One of my favourite songs. Watching the Tomascow version I had tears of laughter...until I shot myself in the head! :)
posted by GamesRmeLife at 8:45 AM on August 31, 2010

I didn't link to Peter, Paul and Mary's cover from the sixties, but I should have. I think they must have influenced Flack inby their languid pace.
posted by willF at 10:19 AM on August 31, 2010

I heard Ewan McColl do this (with Peggy Seeger) at the Ark in Ann Arbor sometime in the late 70's or early 80's, and I could swear he said he got it from an elderly Scots woman who'd told him she had no songs, then, when he finally got her to admit one, sang song after song to him, finally ending with this one.

Maybe my memory is off, but it was a long and hilarious intro, and I can't imagine I hallucinated all of it.
posted by QIbHom at 10:24 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks to willF for linking to my version, which was just recorded in an idle moment as an experiment (and part of a project to learn some of the 'perfect' songs as described in this MusicTalk thread).

Before I recorded it I really only knew Johnny Cash's and Roberta Flack's versions but I went through a heck of a lot of them trying to find one at the original speed (only Peggy Seeger's actually comes close and she plays it in a way that I couldn't mimic). I thought I remembered one by Edwyn Collins, but wasn't able to find it, more's the shame.

Mine is very non-traditional because I changed the feel to 6/8, which has a nice rolling feel to it and made me feel a bit less like I was waiting for a bus each time the chord changed... some singers can hack that but I certainly can't.

Anyway, my own favourite version, after Johnny Cash anyway, is this one by Mary Travers, recorded live after the break-up of PP&M.
posted by unSane at 11:19 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always change the lyrics in my brain to "the first time ever I saw your fez," and picture Akbar and Jeff.
posted by Skot at 11:26 AM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Add me to the list of people who like folk music who had no idea Ewan MacColl wrote this song.
posted by immlass at 11:51 AM on August 31, 2010

Flapjax sez: Now, wouldn't a true folk "purist" not even write any of his own songs?

I''ve had this conversation over and over again with folkies. My own view is that folk music is music that folk make. Y'know, like when teenagers get together in a garage and have at it (as opposed, I guess, to music which is inherently studio- and industry-created). So I've always thought of (genuinely) indie music as folk music. But you can't get that past folkies, who generally insist that it has to be 'in the tradition', however defined. That, to me, is 'traditional music' as opposed to 'folk music' and seems to miss a crucial and quite informative distinction.
posted by unSane at 4:55 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

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