In one of the “lost episodes” of The Andy Griffith Show, Sheriff Andy Taylor is at the mountain home of the Darlings, playing bluegrass songs with Briscoe and the boys. After a round of “Salty Dog,” Andy says, “Hey fellas, I’m not sure if you know this one or not. It’s a new song by the Beatles. It’s called “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” Briscoe Darling puts down his jug and says, “Of course we know it Sheriff. It’s off their new Rubber Soul album*. Besides your Aunt Bea’s cooking, there’s nothing we like better than the Beatles. Sheriff, you start it off on guitar and the boys will catch up with you.”
It’ a long way from Liverpool to Mayberry, but in 1965 the Beatles delivered a bluegrass classic. There are no fiddles, banjos or mandolins, but the bluegrass feeling pervades. “I’ve Just Seen A Face” has the intensity and element of surprise so vital to the genre. It matters little whether Paul McCartney (who wrote the song) was trying to create a country-bluegrass number or something that would fall into the new folk-rock category. No matter what his intentions, the Beatles came up with a song that could be a showstopper at any bluegrass concert.
“I’ve Just Seen A Face” begins with a brief, spiraling solo by George Harrison on his acoustic twelve string. McCartney and John Lennon join in with their acoustic guitars as the song immediately picks up speed. Lots of speed. The mood is bright and exuberant. McCartney’s vocal performance is one of his best ever. In the middle, there’s a hopping guitar solo by Harrison. Ringo Starr plays a brushed snare and maracas. The song moves at a fast and joyful pace from the end of Harrison’s dreamy opening until its close. No doubt, this is one of The Beatles’ most exciting tracks.
“I’ve Just Seen A Face” is a song that expresses discovery, gratitude and hope of sustained love. While the song moves at a lively clip, the words reflect the grounded nature of a thoughtful man so pleased with his good fortune.
I have never known
The like of this, I’ve been alone
And I have missed things
And kept out of sight
But other girls were never quite
Falling, yes I am falling
And she keeps calling
Me back again.
Certainly Briscoe Darling’s boys would be up to task on this song. After all, the Darling boys were played by the members of the great bluegrass band, the Dillards. In the mid-sixties, the Dillards emerged as one of the new groups receiving the attention of a younger audience, yet maintaining the traditions of Appalachian music. Respect, enthusiasm and innovation were the components of the Dillards’ recordings**. So it’s baffling that they missed the mark on their 1968 recording of “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”
The song is a letter high fastball for an accomplished group of bluegrass musicians. There’s the fast pace of the song as well as the sense of awe conveyed in the lyrics. There’s the short but rousing chorus. It’s one of the ultimate feel-good songs, but the Dillards do little with it. Their rendition is competent and pleasant enough but the spirit’s missing. That letter high fastball did not land in the bleachers. There was a lack of timing in the swing. Maybe the Dillards were too careful. Or maybe they thought they could just run through it and still do justice to the song. But it’s not just any song; “I’ve Just Seen A Face” was, even for the Beatles, a stunning achievement.
In December ’65, American fans of the Beatles bought the just-released Rubber Soul, and upon first placing the needle on the record, they heard the envelope being pushed again. “I’ve Just Seen A Face” served as a grand beginning for an innovative album as well as a harbinger for breakthroughs on upcoming albums. Atlanta journalist Jim Auchmutey, always handy with the language, notes the wonder of the song, yet in this case he defines its glory while leaving off the usual superlatives. “I call it happiness,” says Auchmutey.
In Many Years From Now, Barry Miles’ 1997 biography of Paul McCartney, “I’ve Just Seen A Face” is mentioned as a favorite. McCartney was quite pleased with it, saying, “The lyric works: it keeps dragging you forward, it keeps pulling you to the next line, there’s an insistent quality to it that I liked.”
Of course. on the “lost episode” of The Andy Griffith Show, The Darlings play the song in the festive manner we know so well. Briscoe’s daughter Charlene dances up a storm, hoping to catch the eye of Sheriff Taylor. But Andy is concentrating on the song. He’s doing his best to pick it like George Harrison.
*American version of Rubber Soul, released in December 6, 1965.
** Highly recommended is the Doug Dillard-Gene Clark collaboration from 1968, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark.