Lyrical Affairs

Peggy Seeger – the subject of “The First |Time Ever I saw Your Face”.

Today my blog is about songs written as love songs for the women in the writer’s life.

First up is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. This was a massive hit for Roberta Flack in 1972. It was written sixteen years earlier by the English folk singer/song writer and playwright Ewan MacColl. MacColl had just met the American folk artiste Peggy Seeger. She was 23 years younger than him. He was still married to Jean Newlove, with whom he had two children. Their daughter Kirsty became a successful singer/songwriter who shared many of her parents’ radical views. At the time of her death, in a boating accident at the end of 2000, she was collaborating on a documentary series about Cuba.

Judging from the words of the song it must have been a case of love at first sight between MacColl and Seeger. She was in England on a work visa but could not return to the USA where she had been told by the authorities that her passport would be impounded. Her radical views and interest in China and Russia made her a target for the McCarthyites. In order to remain in Europe, she entered a “marriage of convenience” with another English folk singer, Alex Cambell, a friend of MacColl’s.

MacColl and Seeger remained together for more than 30 years, the relationship only ending with MacColl’s death in 1989. They were married in 1977 and had 3 children together.

Seeger, now 86, is still performing. I saw her in a small venue in Goole, in East Yorkshire in 1998 or ’99. I know the approximate date because at the time my grand daughter was 4 years old. Seeger was selling copies of a book of her lyrics complete with musical notation and background notes to the origin of the each song. I purchased a copy and got her to dedicate it to my grand daughter. She is due to appear in Temple Bar, Dublin later this month.

Next are two songs written by Eric Clapton, both written about, and for, the model Pattie Page. Again it seems to have been a love at first sight relationship. But Pattie was married to his friend, the former Beetle, George Harrison when the two first met. Clapton’s song ‘Layla’ was definitely inspired by her. In his autobiography he admits to being obsessed with her during his Derek and the Dominos period, adding that “all the songs I wrote for the Dominos’ first album are really about her.” (Eric Clapton: The Autobiography pg. 135.)

The Original Derk and the Dominos version of Layla. Clapton later recorded an ‘unplugged’ version of the song.

Clapton began referring to Pattie as ‘Nelly’, or ‘Nell’, and this continued after the two were able to publicly acknowledge their love for each other. As Clapton describes it, the relationship was doomed because of his addictions to drugs and alcohol. It was during this period that he wrote another hit song with her in mind. “I wrote the words (for ‘Wonderful Tonight’) while I was waiting for Nell to get dressed to go out to dinner.” (ibid pg 188).

Those, then, are three great songs that were hits a long time ago but remain among the greatest love songs ever written. I’m sure you can think of some others. Please tell me in the comments.

P.S. If you know who David Bowie had in mind when he wrote “Sorrow”, do tell. Wikipedia tells me that early on he wrote a couple of songs referencing his first love, Hermione Farthingale. His marriage to Mary Angela Barnett was described by both as ‘turbulent’. In Bowie’s words, “living with her is like living with a blow torch.” (Wiki attributes this to: Saner, Emine (17 March 2006). “Angie Bowie: ‘Why I gave up my son Zowie'”. Evening Standard.) So maybe “Sorrow” was prompted by that relationship.

4 thoughts on “Lyrical Affairs

  1. I have two for you. This is a great song, even modernized. I like it because this lady gets on top of big production and owns the song. Of course the original is good, but this one…

    And one of my all time faves – one of the greatest corny lines in rock n roll from Sloan/Barri A little ray of sunshine, a little bit of soul… the two guys who were the Turtles vocals toured with Zappa.

    Liked by 1 person

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