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From Elvis to Barbra Streisand, a brief history of one of Buffy Sainte-Marie's most covered songs
By
Andrea Warner

Published

November 24, 2015

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Buffy Sainte-Marie’s debut album, It’s My Way!, more than earned its exclamation point when it was released in 1964. Sainte-Marie hit the burgeoning folk music scene hard, and the ripple impact of her songs — blistering demands for resistance and peace ("It’s My Way," "Cod’ine"), scathing critiques of war and colonization ("Universal Soldier," "Now That the Buffalo’s Gone"), compassion and frustration like a broken heartbeat throughout — inspired everyone from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash.

In 1965, Sainte-Marie released her followup, Many a Mile. The album features many more traditional songs than her debut, but among the originals are "The Piney Wood Hills," which Sainte-Marie has revisited numerous times throughout her career, and "Until It’s Time For You to Go," a ballad that, in its 50-year history, has been covered by everybody from Elvis Presley and Bette Davis to Barbra Streisand and Emilie Claire-Barlow.

In honour of the song’s 50th anniversary, CBC Music explores the fascinating history of this simple, sweeping number through the artists who have covered it again and again, turning it into hits for themselves and ensuring its status as a timeless classic. 

"We’ll make a space in the lives that we had planned
And here we’ll stay until it’s time for you to go."

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Let’s start with the original. According to Sainte-Marie, "Until It’s Time For You to Go" was "just a song written by a girl in love," which "popped into my head while I was falling in love with someone I knew couldn’t stay with me."

In her vocal performance, she conveys a million emotions within minutes, not the least of which is a knowing defiance and agency over this doomed love affair. She’s not in over her head or naive, but entirely centred in her feelings and the reality of being lost in love without losing sense of herself.

The Four Pennies

This British pop band (which even now seems like a Beatles wannabe act, so perhaps that’s why they didn’t successfully crossover to North America during the British Invasion) covered Sainte-Marie’s song the same year it was released and made it a top 20 hit in the U.K.. The group was shortlived: it formed in 1963 and broke up for good in 1966.

Cher

Cher’s cover appeared on her 1966 self-titled album. Her slightly more upbeat arrangement — the flute and those drums — showcases her clear, soaring vocals. It’s a completely different interpretation than Elvis Presley would offer up six years later. Cher echoes Sainte-Marie’s notes of being emotional but empowered, whereas Presley had nothing to lose in playing up the melancholy and the heartache. In fact, it could only help reaffirm his image.  

Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell

Turning the song into a duet was inspired, and it’s particularly fascinating to note the give and take on the verses, who sings which lines and who doesn’t. The harmonies make it a particularly humble little love song, imbuing it with a tenderness that’s deeply intimate.

Barbra Streisand

The orchestral backing arrangement imbues the song with a cinematic quality, or treats it like a show-stopping number in a Broadway musical. Streisand’s voice is sublime, but there’s something about this version that’s beautiful yet empty. There’s a disconnect between the words and the music, perhaps because the presentation feels more orchestrated (no pun intended), almost fussy.

Neil Diamond

The crooner’s gender-flipped lyrics, word tweaks and phrasing change the dynamics of the song substantially. When he’s singing it, the song becomes a kiss-off rather than a lament, and that’s an essay unto itself.

The Monkees

A demo from The Headquarters Sessions, Michael Nesmith’s solo vocals over acoustic backing gives the song an eerie, lonesome quality, which also fits with the band’s attempts at a more grownup sound and creative autonomy.

Päivi Paunu

Known as the Finnish Joan Baez, Paunu’s commanding but faithful cover of Sainte-Marie’s song is simple, understated and powerful.

Barbara McNair

McNair’s smouldering torch-singer take on the song burns with intensity and loss, and it’s chillingly beautiful. No wonder the producers of the TV show McMillan & Wife cast her to sing this in front of McMillan, her former flame, and into the homes of millions of viewers.

Elvis Presley

Presley’s interpretation amps up the song’s sentimental side. His drawl tucks the words inside his mouth, like one of those enveloping hugs that makes you feel safe until you start to feel smothered. But his emotional treatment is effective — if you can listen to it in full with dry eyes, email me the secrets of your robot heart — and it’s Presley’s version that most people associate with the song.

Shirley Bassey

[Starts at the 3:08 mark]

The way the incomparable Bassey draws out key phrases and creates space in between sentiments is exquisite. Her voice is so in command, so sophisticated and sensual and adult.

Anita Carter

Carter’s cover adds a tiny bit of twang to the ballad, but it’s subtle, never overwhelming. It’s genuinely refreshing to hear her voice — solo, strong, free of her famous family — even if she never quite connects with the words.

Françoise Hardy

The lilt of Hardy’s French accent and her phrasing imbue the song with a deeper sense of tragic beauty than Claudine Longet’s cover in 1967, and also introduces an element of mystery that recontextualizes the lyrics. It’s another neat twist on a song that, at this point in 1972, already had so many artists attempt to put their own stamps on it.

Ray Bryant

The great jazz pianist’s arrangement is glorious: it skips and swoons and swallows you whole, and it’s more uplifting than almost any other version, but it accomplishes this without sacrificing sentiment.

The New Birth

Perhaps the song’s wildest reinvention, the New Birth’s treatment is funky, soulful, seductive and brilliant. Susaye Greene’s vocals are spellbinding and definitive, a simultaneous imploration and exorcism.

Bette Davis

Yes, that Bette Davis. Her cover is a pained beauty and aching farewell, though her vocal technique is more speak-singing than any kind of truly commanding vocal acrobatics. But there’s something mournful and wise about Davis’s version of the song, never more so than when she implores, "love me, love me, now." It’s stark and haunting, and she wisely gives it the space it needs to cause maximum impact.

Lorez Alexandria

This vocal jazz treatment and its accompaniment are so very vintage late-’70s, and it’s perfect. The backing Gildo Mahones Quartet establishes stands out but never in a distracting, look-at-me way. The give and take between the lead vocals and the accompaniment are its own kind of duet, making the song almost playful compared to the other covers up to that point.

Emilie-Claire Barlow

Barlow, a Canadian jazz artist, embraces the simplicity of Sainte-Marie’s song. Her 2010 cover is beautifully understated: just vocals, piano and an accordion. Her French translation is particularly gorgeous, which you can find on her eighth jazz album, The Beat Goes On.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner