The First Time
I was lucky to first hear the words “Roberta Flack” when I was young enough that I could only tell what words meant by the spirits that touched me when I heard them spoken. And the women in my family spoke the sounds “Roberta Flack” with pride and respect as if those words represented every possibility for their own power and beauty. Before I knew a single note of her music I grew to think of her as being among the greatest ever.
There is a picture of her next to my desk, seated at a piano singing into a dark stage, the light glistening over her hair. I want to remember her when I’m writing, but as it often happens with the photos we keep up, I more regularly forget that it is there at all.
Her cover of The First Time is a piece of music that I’ve heard perhaps hundreds of times, and each listening is an experience that is beyond my understanding. Her recording is cosmic in its construction, of a reverence so powerful that one must make space for it, must be summoned to meet it. You do not hear it, you feel it. It is an invocation.
The First Time was first written in 1957 by political folk artist Ewan McColl, allegedly in about ten minutes, on a challenge by his girlfriend singer Peggy Seeger who needed a pop-type love song for radio play. It was a minor hit, covered in four-part harmonies by a bunch of folk types including The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and The Brothers Four. Each version seems to speak the song without understanding the song, kind of like when I was a young man living abroad and I used to read the local newspaper out loud to the delight of my German roommates without having the slightest idea of what I was saying.
I love you, the song says in their hands. You are beautiful. Kissing you is wonderful. Touching you is magnificent. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you baby. These are nice sentiments. But this is not all there is to the song.
While folk groups were recording this track, Roberta Flack was being a musical prodigy in South Carolina. She was a student of classical music and her talents were so extreme that they got her admitted into Howard University at the age of 15. There she studied opera and the entire European canon and even had plans of becoming an opera singer until a voice teacher encouraged her otherwise. Instead, upon graduation she found work as…