The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

June 24, 2010 9:09 AM

Cover of the Ewan McColl classic, at the original speed for once. So I know covering a classic like this is pretty dumb -- how you gonna compete with Johnny Cash, Peggy Seeger and Roberta Flack? But I was really curious about something I read, so I wanted to try an experiment.

Apparently Ewan MacColl uniformly hated all covers of this song (Elvis' mangling of it in particular), not least because they all played it much too slow. Roberta Flack's version, which really broke the song into the mainstream, is 4'15 or so. Johnny Cash's version is a hair under 4'00.

But Ewan McColl's original was about 2'30. However, it's nowhere to be found. I really wondered how the song would work back at that speed.

Secondly, and related, when it's taken so slowly, the harmonic structure of the song barely holds together. The chords seem almost arbitrary. I wondered if speeding it up would reveal a bit more about the structure of the song. Which it really did... it turns out to be quite a conventional piece, much easier to learn at the original tempo.

Finally, I wondered if the mournful, dirge-like quality it has when played so slowly would dissipate, and what would remain. I'm not sure yet. I do quite like the 6/8 feel, which just emerged as I was fiddling with the guitar part, seems to make the whole thing flow.

There are lots more manglings on YouTube, including versions by Alison Moyet, Celine Dion, Peter Paul & Mary, Stereophonics, and everyone else.

posted by unSane (5 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

sweet. i've never heard the original either but did always feel there was something quite weird about roberta flack's version (but i liked it). so that's cleared that up for me at list. i like the sound of this too - the guitar and vocal textures are sort of hazy and atmospheric. nice.
posted by peterkins at 9:46 AM on June 24, 2010

When you play it really slowly, the count gets all vague. You sort of lose track of how many bars you've been playing C for and where the next change is. It's very odd, but sort of hypnotic too.
posted by unSane at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2010

Here's Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) doing an absolutely riveting version, live in Australia, at the original speed. My God, this is great.
posted by unSane at 10:37 PM on June 24, 2010

Nice! I like the way it "opens up" with the second guitar at around 1:30. Sounds great.

p.s. I picked up Velvet Crush's "Teenage Symphonies to God" and you're right -- Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Sloan -- they're all in there.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 12:05 AM on June 26, 2010

This is beautiful.
posted by Corduroy at 11:10 AM on June 29, 2010

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