You thought I’d forgotten Gordon Lightfoot, didn’t you? Well, there are a few good songs left from his superb Lightfoot! album, and this is one. If you’re a bit younger than I, you may remember the 1972 version of this song that became a huge hit for Roberta Flack. But I like Lightfoot’s version better.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is one of three songs on Lightfoot! not written by Gordon. The songwriter was in fact Ewan MacColl (1915-1989, real name James Henry Miller), who, according to Wikipedia, wrote it for Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-sister, also a folk singer. There have been many covers, including ones by Celine Dion and the Smothers Brothers. Wikipedia notes others:
The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by The Kingston Trio on its 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot and others.
Ewan MacColl himself made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors.’ He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace.”
Well, maybe this one, from Lightfoot!, is an exception. If it’s too lachrymose, weigh in below:
Here’s the version sung by Peggy Seeger, with Ewan MacColl on guitar. And indeed, it’s much folkier than all the covers I’ve heard—presumably the way MacColl intended it to be sung. Which do you prefer?