There are two differing accounts of the origin of the song. MacColl said that he wrote the song for Seeger after she asked him to pen a song for a play she was in. He wrote the song and taught it to Seeger over the telephone. Seeger said that MacColl, with whom she had begun an affair in 1957, used to send her tapes to listen to whilst they were apart and that the song was on one of them.
The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by the Kingston Trio on their 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, and by Gordon Lightfoot on his debut album Lightfoot! (1966).
MacColl made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: "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."
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