How do you sing “The first time ever I saw your face/I thought the sun rose in your eyes” when you know that the face in question is your own? You can’t concentrate on the beauty of your own face, without sounding horribly vain. Peggy Seeger chose to sing the words lightly, to take the words away from her face. From the personal to the universal. Peggy sings love into the song as an essence, simple and natural as air:
When Roberta Flack found The First Time, some years later, it came to her as a fully formed love song, with no emotional strings attached to her. The song wasn’t written for her by a lover.
She worked on it at her piano in Mr Henry’s bar, in Washington DC. All the possibilities of its vivid, languorous language were available to her, for any face she chose to imagine into them. She didn’t need to un-imagine her own face when she sang the words. The words were free to settle where she chose.
Roberta sang The First Time in Mr Henry’s bar because she enjoyed the song. She chose it for herself. Nobody gave it to her. She luxuriates in the words, giving each vivid image the weight and width it deserves. The dark and endless skies expand for her. The moon and the stars become limitless and limpid for her. She takes her time. She sings the song twice as slowly as Peggy Seeger.
“ I sing slow. Slow as molasses going uphill.” Roberta Flack
When Roberta places a gap, a breath, after first time, she adds wonder to the line. She’s stopping to remember. And anyone who remembers the delicious shock of that moment when you first catch sight of a new love, pauses in time with Roberta, each in their own private memory. That tiny gap allows the space for remembering. Peggy sings the line straight through, matter of fact, folk style: The first time ever … I saw your face. Roberta sings: The first time……ever I saw your face. That gap holds a portion of the magic; the rest glows in Roberta’s voice:
Now, 60 years on, Peggy Seeger sings The First Time differently too. Ewan McColl is no longer beside her and I’d say that she’s fondly, deeply, remembering him. It’s his face she’s remembering, along with her memory of their strong love and their marriage:
When you sing a love song: own it. Speed it up, slow it down, change the stress pattern of the words, but make it your own. Otherwise your audience won’t believe you. They will feel betrayed. You choose how to sing it in, but you must believe the love in your love song.
Love can inhabit a love song in many different ways – as matter of factly as Peggy Seeger’s first First Time or as nostalgically as her last. The words are exactly the same. The only difference is what she’s thinking and feeling as she sings them.
When you sing a love song, you have to believe the love within it. You choose whether that love is full of wonder, like Roberta’s. The wonder’s abundantly available in the lyrics of The First Time, but it takes Roberta to capture it. She slows the song to walking pace so that we have time to appreciate just how miraculously wonderful her man seems to her. How he fills the sky with shining light for her.
If you want to read about other singers putting other kinds of love into English song, try complicated love, disappointed love, milk chocolate love, enthusiastic love or long distance telephone Bob Dylan love. Love comes in many flavours and it’s your job to believe the flavour you sing into your song.
If English isn’t your first language, remember: you need to use soft, easy English schwa sounds in The First Time. First needs to sound smooth. Its r must be an unrolled English r – like David Bowie’s r in Starman. Think of depth, space, warmth and love while you sing. Give your words room to sigh. No dictionary prisons.
By the way: There’s a heart-warming Soul Music BBC Radio 4 programme on The First Time. I recommend it highly and it’s available as a podcast, free on the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07zz5y8
© Sing Better English, 2016