While many know this classic line from Nina Simone’s 1967 rendition of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free from her 1967 Silk & Soul album, few may know that this was in fact an adaptation of a 1963 spiritual by the jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor.
Originally recorded in November 1963 as a purely instrumental piece, the song I Wish I Knew is not unlike Oscar Peterson’s A Hymn to Freedom (1962), embellishing on a hymnal tune with gravitas rare in pop music then, yet so critical to the musical works engaged in political change. Billy Taylor, the original composer (as well as radio host and jazz music educator), also had extensive formal training and collaborative efforts with jazz luminaries, and still pushed the boundaries of political engagement with this song as exemplary (original 1963 with full horn section below):
It may be worthwhile to put this song into the context of the movement. Five months prior in June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy had called for a civil rights bill following growing unrest and violence in the fight for civil rights. Two months later in August, the March on Washington culminated in Martin Luther King Junior giving his most remembered speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The Civil Rights Act had not in fact passed yet, and would not also until July of the following year in 1964. The song was released in the heart of that strife.
The song did not see the success it could, however, in its current form. Upon the encouragement of his daughter, Billy Taylor would collaborate with lyricist Dick Dallas to produce the lyrics for the version that many of us have come to know and be more familiar with now:
Debuted by Nina Simone, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free released in 1967 succeeds on multiple levels, not the least of which of course is Nina Simone herself.
From the first lines of the song, Nina grasps the listener with a shimmer that connotes both an innocent hopefulness as much as a sense of resignation that only a yearning — like “wishing” — brings. The next line commenting on the wish to “break all the chains holding me” adds gravitas to the upbeat melody, and Simone’s energy seems to continue to build on that original sense of hope. With greater energy infused in the lyrics to say it “loud” and say it “clear,” Simone summons “the whole world” to hear its message.
The arrangement of the piece, too, lends itself to a choral feel. Beginning with a solo piano before Simone joins, the song overall builds slowly in the same way that the lyrics build, starting with the most reductionist entity — “I” — and building toward “the whole world.” The first verse only asks for light brushwork from the drummer and small twangs from the guitar to accompany Simone and her piano. As the song moves forward, horns begin to punctuate added responses from the guitar, as the piano embellishes and continues to drive the harmonic developments. By the time the song comes to its final verse, the horns, guitar, and drums have driven Simone’s to new heights, helping her soar both energetically and tonally through yearning to “be like a bird in the sky.”
Imagine also that this is in the context of her professional career. Having just transitioned to the recording company RCA Victor, Simone in 1967 is in the thick of her most politically active music yet. Riding on increased popularity from her success in the late 50s and early 60s, Simone had just begun to turn to more contentious issues speaking out politically and thus adding to her already well-earned notoriety (Mississippi Goddam from 1963 is known as a seminal point in her political activism). Now, this Silk & Soul album would be her thirteenth, from which she had a song that would be nominated for a Grammy.
The national climate in 1967 also heightened visibility of this song. Two years prior, Malcolm X had been assassinated in Harlem. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act) had not yet passed. Martin Luther King Junior had begun to be more outspoken about the Vietnam War and had begun organizing campaigns against poverty. The Black Panther Party had been formed a year prior in Oakland, California. While laws had passed, the political climate remained far from at peace.
Such circumstances, then, have helped lend this seminal piece of music the status that we associate with it today. Written and performed in the throes of personal, social, and political battlement, the song showcases Nina Simone’s artistry and musicianship to convey even to this very day the pains and hopes that once inspired this everlasting hymn to freedom.