[originally appeared in Shindig! issue 111]
‘The French Girl’ is the musical equivalent of an Impressionist painting: sparse lyrical images weaving together to create an intricately detailed world. Three silver rings, a dark-haired woman, a cozy room, glasses of red wine…..and then she disappears, and no one knows who she was or where she has gone. It’s romantic, but with an underlying and somewhat unsettling sense of unreality.
Ian and Sylvia Tyson wrote the song in late 1965, during what Sylvia described to their biographer John Einarson as “a very transitional period for us”. As the duo of Ian & Sylvia, they were stars on the folk rock circuit, and had already released four albums on the Vanguard label. Songs like Ian’s ‘Four Strong Winds’ and Sylvia’s ‘You Were On My Mind’ had brought them acclaim as songwriters. But they were well aware that the musical tides were changing. At the ‘65 Newport Folk Festival, they saw their friend Bob Dylan booed when he dared to play an electric guitar. Ian told an interviewer that folk music would inevitably go electric “because it was so darn hard to play in a lot of situations with just a flat-top guitar” – but as traditional folk acts were being overtaken by “folk-rock”, and by pop-oriented bands, they had to adapt or be left behind.
So their fifth album, Play One More, was going to be different. Their previous albums had been recorded in performance venues to create a “live” ambience; however, simply placing a few microphones in front of acoustic instruments was no longer going to produce the sonic quality that listeners expected. They were booked into RCA’s recording studio in New York City with a professional recording engineer. But the sessions were disjointed, because studio time had to be fitted into their busy touring schedule.
Interestingly, though Ian & Sylvia had been working together professionally since 1960, they rarely collaborated as songwriters. ‘The French Girl’ started as a melody that Sylvia composed on piano, and Ian then added the lyrics; it became their first co-written song. But what really made ‘The French Girl’ so distinctive was the involvement of Felix Pappalardi. Ian & Sylvia recruited him to play electric bass in their touring band, to make their live sound more contemporary, but what they didn’t know was that he had also trained as a classical musician and arranger.
Pappalardi brought that training to the beautiful baroque arrangement of Ian & Sylvia’s recording of ‘The French Girl’. He not only wrote the arrangement but also conducted the studio orchestra that played it – a daunting task, since Vanguard’s reputation in the classical music world meant that the very best string musicians would play on its sessions. “Here was this little guy up there with a baton,” Sylvia recalled, “[and] it was the first time he’d ever done that.” Einarson observes that the sound of ‘The French Girl’ was “a possible direction Ian & Sylvia could very well have followed, predating the Left Banke’s baroque rock hits ‘Walk Away Renee’ and ‘Pretty Ballerina’ by a full year.”
While Play One More demonstrated Ian and Sylvia’s willingness to expand their musical horizons, reviewers described the album as a mixed bag that lacked cohesion. Its commercial prospects were also harmed by Vanguard’s indifference toward promotion and distribution. For many of the label’s folk acts, their live appearances did more to boost record sales than anything the label did. Vanguard apparently planned to release ‘The French Girl’ as a single, with ‘Play Some More’ as the B-side; it assigned a catalogue number to the record, but it doesn’t appear that the record ever actually came out.
The first cover of the ‘French Girl’ was likely the version by The Daily Flash, a powerful live act from Seattle that seemed destined for great things. However, when the band’s members moved to Los Angeles to further their career, they signed an exclusive representation deal with Brian Stone and Charlie Greene. Stone and Greene had helped transform the unsuccessful Caesar and Cleo into the much more successful Sonny and Cher, but their track record after that success was uneven, and they were frequently described as “hustlers”. A ’66 Los Angeles Times profile described Greene arriving at his office in “an $18,000 limousine with a TV set, a stereo, a bar, fur rugs in back and a liveried chauffeur up front”.
Stone and Greene arranged for The Daily Flash to be booked onto high-profile gigs supporting bands such as The Grateful Dead and The Steve Miller Band, in prestigious West Coast venues like San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom. They also brokered a record deal for the band with the new Uni Records label. The Daily Flash apparently chose ‘The French Girl’ because lead singer Don MacAllister was an Ian & Sylvia fan. The band’s version of the song, recorded in the fall of ’66, highlighted their beautifully layered vocal harmonies, with a clavinet adding slightly baroque flourishes.
The Daily Flash’s ‘The French Girl’ became the first single released by Uni Records. Although it failed to chart, Uni paid for the band to record several more tracks over the following months. But tensions between the band members over their lack of success, despite relentless touring, led to The Daily Flash disbanding at the end of ’67 without ever releasing an album. However, in ’94, I Flash Daily, a compilation of the band’s studio recordings – including ‘The French Girl’ – was released in the UK.
Vocalist Glenn Yarbrough, like Ian and Sylvia, came from the folk-music world, with his first successes as a member of the trio The Limeliters. His solo records varied between covers of songs by Top 40 artists and more mellow numbers for the “easy listening” audience. His resonant, slightly melancholy tenor voice was a good fit for ‘The French Girl’, which he included on his 1967 album For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her. Yarbrough’s cover features a gentle string arrangement accented by flutes and acoustic guitar arpeggios; it’s definitely not as edgy as other interpretations, but it has its own wistful charm.
Gene Clark may have heard ‘The French Girl’ while still a member of The Byrds, since The Daily Flash opened for them several times. After leaving The Byrds, Clark recorded the song during the sessions for his ’67 solo debut Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. Curt Boettcher’s arrangment echoes the elaborate string orchestration of Ian and Sylvia’s original, but the delicacy of the song is somewhat overwhelmed by the rather intrusive backing vocals. Clark’s label, Columbia Records, apparently intended ‘The French Girl’ and another non-album track, ‘Only Colombe’, to be released as a single after the album came out – but that never happened. Clark was allegedly dissatisfied with his vocal or with the arrangement, and Columbia was allegedly unhappy with the album’s poor sales. Columbia cancelled Clark’s contract not long after the album’s release, and Clark’s ‘The French Girl’ was not officially released until it appeared on the ’91 compilation Echoes, in a remixed version with the backing vocals removed. The Sundazed label released the ‘The French Girl’/’Only Colombe’ single in 2008.
Bob Dylan was also apparently taken with the song, because there are two recordings of him playing it two decades apart. It was among the songs he and The Band played during the ’67 Basement Tapes sessions. ‘The French Girl wasn’t included on the ’75 The Basement Tapes album, but was on the widely circulated bootlegs of those sessions. Eventually, two Basement Tapes takes of ‘The French Girl’ were officially released in 2014 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. Then, in 1987, Dylan played the song in rehearsal with the Grateful Dead, prior to their joint tour that year; the bootlegged audio of this version is posted on YouTube. Dylan and the Dead’s ‘The French Girl’ is more uptempo than Dylan’s version with The Band, and Jerry Garcia contributes a beautifully poignant slide guitar. However, part of the power of ‘The French Girl’ is in its lyrical images, and Dylan’s casual vocal might not clearly convey those images to listeners not already familiar with the song.
Sylvia told Canadian music historian Martin Melhuish that the material she and Ian wrote “was meant to be timeless”. The lasting appeal of ‘The French Girl’ was demonstrated by its most recent appearance, in 2017 – an entirely unexpected treat, because this version was Ian and Sylvia’s original demo of the song. What was even more surprising was that it appeared on another artist’s album. Ian & Sylvia’s longtime friend and collaborator Tom Russell recorded an album of covers of their work – which he fittingly entitled Play One More – and they gave him the demos of ‘The French Girl’ and ‘Grey Morning’ to include as bonus tracks. The very first recording of ‘The French Girl’, with Ian’s solo vocal backed only by acoustic guitar and bass, is as enchanting today as it was then.