I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

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)

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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3 Responses to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

  1. Jessica R says:

    Just want to say how much I enjoy reading your posts — they always inspire me and speak to my heart. THANK YOU for being YOU and sharing so generously

  2. Bruce O'Brien says:

    Barbara,this is a great post! I love this song but only recently heard it. Thanks. More Songs

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