Roberta Flack & Johnny Cash: The first time ever I heard your voice

I love covers. Have I said that before? It’s always a bit of a thrill when I find some beloved song masterfully covered by another artist. (See my post regarding Feist’s transcendant cover of Secret Heart.) What I also love are the emotional inflections each cover artist brings to a song. For example, eighteen renditions of Wild Horses reside on my iPod. Only 2 of them are by the Rolling Stones, while my favourite  is soaringly sung the effervescently voiced The Sundays followed, perhaps, by the most intriguing Tori Amos, and Dave Matthews’ gravelly sweet presence comes in a close third. So, when I logged into crackbook this morning to discover one of my friends had posted Johnny Cash covering If Ever I Saw Your Face I thought, hmmmmmm…

I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t love his rendition, but, oh my, the man has gravitas, with that world-weary, lingeringly liquor-soaked voice wrenching pathos and longing from a song I recall from my youth as Roberta Flack’s soaringly soulful paean to love at first sight. The quality of the voices, the disparate age and culture and the difference between a life looking hopefully forward matched to another taking a long, thoughtful look back, these all combine to create startlingly different emotional connections to the song, and inflect different meanings on the words.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe I should just let the music stand on its own.

Nah. It’s fascinating.

Even more fascinating is that this song was written by folk singer Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger (Pete Seeger’s half-sister). According to Wikipedia, Flack’s rendition is over twice as long as MacColl’s original. Moreover:

MacColl was an absolute folk purist (for example he did not approve of English people singing Scottish folk songs, or vice versa) and reputedly hated almost all the recordings of the song, including Flack’s. His daughter-in-law is quoted as saying:

“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.”

I wonder what he would’ve thought of Cash’s cover?

Just for comparison, here’s Peggy Seever, performing the song MacColl wrote (and sanctioned) exclusively for her. It’s very different!

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3 Responses to “Roberta Flack & Johnny Cash: The first time ever I heard your voice”

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  1. Gary says:

    (You know I have hit the ‘edit’ button just about every time I want to make a comment. Bugger! )

    And damn you, Patrick. I was just about to go do some work when I was notified of your post, and had to drop everything and respond post haste.

    You hit the nail on the head with your assessment of both versions. I have a story to tell, as usual.

    I first heard the JC version one day when I wandered into a record store. I donned the headphones and as I listened, my jaw hit the counter. I got chills and my eyes filled with tears. It is unbelievably moving. And listening to it, you can’t help but compare it to the Roberta version because they come at the song from such different directions. I can’t think of too many other songs where a singer’s age/life experience would be so significant. I first heard Roberta’s version in the film starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Play Misty for Me’. I like it but for me, JC’s version is the one I hold close to my heart. Just gorgeous. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Gary says:

    18 versions of ‘Wild Horses’ – wow. I had a quick look at my Itunes, and the two songs I think I have most versions of are Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like a Woman’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ (perhaps a post on this soon). But in both cases, just 6 renditions.

  3. Patrick says:

    I love Wild Horses!

    If you want an absolutely ridiculous example of over-coverage, I should post about the # of Stairway to Heaven covers I’ve picked up. lol

    What I love most about Cash’s version is the doleful guitar. Still, I think I prefer to soar — I’m still looking forward, even after all these years.

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