Song 207: Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (1967)


Nina Simone has one of Those Voices. It’s simultaneously sad, joyous, angry, and steadfast, perfectly suited to whatever song she happens to be singing, whether it’s “Strange Fruit” or “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates.

Listening to her version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” recently, I was struck by how all of the above characteristics are present. It’s not a happy song, of course, but Simone ascribes some hopefulness to it, especially by the end, when she’s describing a bird flying away, higher and higher.

But first things first: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” was written by jazz ambassador Billy Taylor, and it’s been sung many, many times. And rightfully so. It’s beautiful, from the gospel melody to the simplicity of its lyrics, which, despite the flight imagery at the end, are plain and bluntly honest. I think why this song works so well is that the wish for equality is so logical, so undemanding, that those straightforward lyrics are almost darkly humorous. It’s such a simple desire—I want to be a person, I want to be heard—so why am I even here singing about it? This is what it takes?

Also interesting is that, though written for the civil rights movement (Taylor’s original version was released in 1963, the year of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”), this song applies to any group who face discrimination. The fact that Simone is a black woman lends the song an added poignancy, and that magnificent voice—initially plaintive and a little shaky; ultimately determined and impassioned—makes the song simultaneously personal and universal.

Simone goes a hell of a long way within 3 minutes and 10 seconds, and by the time she’s singing “And I’d sing ‘cause I’d know,” followed by a sound that’s somewhere between a “yeah” and Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp, it’s clear that she’s not about to slow down. The song then fades, with Simone hollering like a woman possessed. There’s no resolving chord, no definitive close. The battle doesn’t end, but neither does the fight.


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