Let’s not mince words here — The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, originally penned by folk singer Ewan McColl for his wife Peggy Seeger, is one of the greatest songs ever written. No contest. I was lucky enough to see Ewan McColl in concert in the heart of rural Somerset when I was about eight years old, accompanied by Peggy and a very young Kirsty McColl (in fact, most of the extended McColl and Seeger families played on that tour). Our parents dragged my sister and I along because they were going through their earnest folk music phase at the time (hand-knitted pullovers and soya substitute, mostly), and were keen to educate us in the musical art of protest and consciousness-raising. Sadly, being so young and probably preferring Showaddywaddy at the time, all I saw was an old bloke with a beard and a lurid sweater groaning away about socialism, accompanied by acoustic guitars and the occasional accordian. Don’t worry, years later I have come to realise that for one night in a small local theatre, I was in the presence of genius. The memories are hazy at best, but even I remember the final encore from that winter evening — a sparse, hushed rendition of that song:
“The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the night and the empty skies my love
To the night and the empty skies.”
The word ‘romantic’ is used in far too many dubious contexts these days, many of which often border on vomit-inducing. But just how romantic is that? Love song and a half.
Everyone knows the Roberta Flack version, but a quick skim through Google reveals that George Michael, Elvis Presley and Engelbert Humperdinck have all taken their turn at putting it through the wringer. Yet the real horror is discovering that Celine Dion has also painfully murdered every last drop of gut-wrenching emotion from this beautiful song. I sincerely hope that I die without ever having to torture my ears via that particular musical travesty.
But tonight — lying in a darkened room with a headache from hell beating on the inside of my skull — I have been listening on repeat play to Johnny Cash singing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard it this evening. It lasts just under four minutes, and I listened to it for about two and a half hours in total — so you do the maths. I’m no Johnny Cash fan — too many memories of a certain alcoholic uncle who used to wail along to records by The Man In Black late at night, causing untold misery to the neighbourhood’s cats — but I have a lot of time for his stark, bare and none-so-dark cover versions, as I discovered when (probably against good advice) I spent an entire day at work listening to his version of U2’s One.
If I were even a little in charge of my senses at this point, I would be tempted to make a list of songs that Johnny Cash should cover (has he done any Nick Cave? He’s got to have covered a Bad Seeds song, surely?) As it is, I’m far too emotionally overwhelmed. There should be laws against songs that instantly bring a tear to your eye.