For British readers of a certain age, you won’t be able to hear this song without thinking of Barry Norman’s film review programmes.
Culturally significant though that was, I’m sure even Mr Norman would admit the role of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” in the civil rights movement was perhaps even more important.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” started out as an instrumental written by jazz pianist Billy Taylor.
Although the BBC re-recorded the instrumental version when they selected it as the theme for Barry Norman’s programme, you’ll recognise it instantly (the familiar “theme” passage starts about 50 seconds in… https://youtu.be/jlH_XFuf3wU )
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” would go on to acquire the full lyrics later with the help of Dick Dallas (real name Richard Carroll Lamb).
Nina Simone recorded that version for her 1967 album “Silk and Soul”. Despite going through one of the quieter phases in her career at that time, Nina Simone was still a big enough draw, and had fans across a wide spectrum of races and backgrounds, that “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” started to find its way out into the mainstream.
I’d like to say the world had moved on since the turmoil of the 1960s, which mercifully did at least see some measure of victory for the civil rights movement, but today there are still far too many people around the world who could sing…
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
As time goes on, though, the struggle seems to have morphed somewhat.
In most countries discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or belief is, at least in theory, forbidden (whether or not that’s true in practice is a whole different question…).
But in the 21st century we have a more insidious problem to deal with, alongside all the old ones we had already, that is.
And that’s the very 21st century way in which some people interpret “having rights” to mean that they feel free to use those rights to terrorise, traumatise and victimise other human beings.
If you feel you need to exercise “your rights” in a way that victimises someone else, you should take a long, hard look at yourself.
Lords of the Manor did that in times gone by. It didn’t make the Lords of the Manor “good people” to keep peasants they “owned” in poverty while they enjoyed the fruits of those peasants’ labour and availed themselves at will of the company of the wives and daughters of the poor men who grew the food that kept their castle fed.
It didn’t make slave-ship owners “good people” when they legally bought other human beings in Africa and transported them halfway around the world to be worked to death on plantations, even though they were just exercising “their rights” to sell “their property” on the open market when they got to the New World.
When laws were passed that allowed governments to discriminate against people with a particular colour of skin or belief system, that didn’t make the people who enforced those laws “good people”. It made them complicit in a legally-sanctioned system of oppression.
Nina Simone once defined “feeling free” as “having no fears”.
I think that’s a pretty good working definition.
Rights should be interpreted not by what you can do when you possess them, but by the impact you can have on others when you enforce them. If that impact is unfailingly negative, you should be less concerned about “your rights” and more concerned about the hurt you’re causing when you exercise them.
When innocent men, women and children can go to sleep without being scared that an artillery shell will land on their meagre home in the middle of the night and finish them all off…
When girls in every country of the world can go to school without being frightened that some zealot is going to harm them because they “shouldn’t” be allowed to learn in the same way boys do…
When people can speak up against injustice without fearing for their lives, their jobs and their reputations…
Then maybe…just maybe…we’ll all be free.
We just need to learn to see things from the other person’s point of view…
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free
I wish I could give like I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things I can do
Although it wasn’t written for her, there couldn’t be a better person to sing “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free” than Nina Simone.
A very talented classical-trained pianist, discrimination meant Nina Simone didn’t get the career opportunities which would have been open to her if her skin had been a different colour.
People with less inner strength would just have given up and lived a quiet life in a menial job somewhere. But Nina Simone wasn’t about to let the world tell her how to live. She decided to take on the world.
It wasn’t the easiest path to choose. She developed a reputation for “being difficult” and famously once shot at a record company executive in a business meeting when she thought they were cheating her out of royalites. (She later said her only regret was that she hadn’t been a better shot…)
But people who change the world are often seen as difficult. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t change a thing.
And next time someone’s trying to change your world and your reaction is to start quoting “your rights” in defence of the status quo, just imagine someone using those same rights to detrimental effect against you. If you don’t like the sound of that, you really have no business imposing those “rights” on anybody else.
If you don’t like the idea of your family not being safe in their beds at night…of your son not getting an education because he isn’t a girl…of having your reputation and prospects destroyed just for drawing attention to an injustice…then don’t do it to anybody else. Whatever “your rights” might say.
Today can be the day you start to make the world a better place…
And though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew
Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet would it be if I found I could fly
I’d soar up to the sun and look down at the sea
And I’d sing ’cause I’d know
And I’d sing ’cause I’d know
And I’d sing ’cause I’d know
I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free
That’s the irony. You can’t be truly free when there’s someone else who’s being oppressed, whose life is being negatively impacted by “your rights”.
Give them their freedom and you get the freedom you’ve been longing for all along automatically.
Freedom really does feel good. If you’re looking for it, I hope you find it.
Here’s the incomparable Nina Simone with the full story…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).