A song can be medicine.
A song can fuel change.
A song can weave in and out of a life, awakening deeper levels of meaning and knowing.
I first got acquainted with the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in The Great Songs of the Sixties songbook my brother Ross gave me for my 13th birthday. I spent hours with that book, sight-reading songs new and familiar. “I Wish I Knew How…,” composed by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas in 1964, was my favorite, even though it was in the tricky key of A-flat. The gospel chords and yearning lyrics stirred a deep longing for expression and liberation that was alive in me even then.
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all those chains holding me.
I wish I could say all things I should say —
Say them loud, say them clear for the whole world to hear.
When I lived in Paris in the mid-1980’s I owned only four cassettes. I listened to them over and over on my Walkman as I wandered the streets of Paris. One of the four was The Best of Nina Simone. Her rendition of “I Wish I Knew How…” was a song I visited again and again. Her dark and vivid voice directly transmitted the turmoil and heartache that drove the Civil Rights Movement – and the desire for liberation that resides in all of us.
I wish I could give all the love in my heart,
Remove all the bars that still keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me,
Then you’d see and agree every man/one should be free.
Years later I rediscovered the song through a conversation with my beloved friend and mentor, Peter Block. We discovered that the two of us had been fascinated with the song during the exact same years. I was a gawky, shy teenager in Stillwater, Minnesota. He was a young father and up-and-coming executive in St. Louis, Missouri. He loved it so much that he learned how to pick it out on the piano – a fine achievement, considering that he did so with extremely limited piano skills. Despite our different circumstances and ages, the song called to us both in a profound way.
The day we discovered our connection to the song, I quickly relearned it and surprised him with it at a concert that evening. A few months later I recorded it on a CD.
Many of my voice coaching clients sing this song as part of their work with me. The final verse expresses what calls many of them to “find their voice:”
I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.
I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea –
Then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know how it feels to be free.
May we all sing from that knowing….
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
© Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, 1964 (Used by permission)