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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Day five of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life—

 

 

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

song by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

 

 

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

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

I wish I could share

All the love that’s in my heart

Remove all the bars

That keep us apart

I wish you could know

Well I wish I could be

Like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be

If I found I could fly

Oh I’d soar to the sun

And look down at the sea

 

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know

I’d know how it feels

Oh I know how it feels to be free

Yea yea! Oh, I know how it feels

 

Yes I know, oh, I know

How it feels

How it feels

To be free, Lord, Lord, Lord

 

What it means to be me

Then you’d see and agree

That every man should be free

 

I wish I could give

All I’m longin’ to give

I wish I could live

Like I’m longin’ to live

I wish I could do

All the things that I can do

And though I’m way over due

I’d be starting anew

 

 

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a song not a poem, but who doesn’t need some music right now? And this is one great song. Reading the lyrics, listening to it sung by the incomparable Nina Simone, I think about how I’ve always been allowed to feel free . . . and how others have not, others who have to keep their guard up, modulate their voices, change their hair texture, restrain their anger at authorities who don’t respect them, train their children to keep safe in ways white parents don’t have to.

 

Maybe this moment is here—

 

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

*

Among the many things I never knew about the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was that “I Wish I Knew How” was one of its anthems. The song’s history mirrors the arc of the song itself—it begins sweet and swinging and builds to soul-moving power. Jazz composer Billy Taylor originally wrote it as an instrumental in 1952, inspired when his daughter came home from school singing a spiritual, but he didn’t record it till 1963. The lyrics came later, written in collaboration with Dick Dallas. The instrumental version was used for a British television show that reviewed movies, and a modified version was eventually used for, yes, you guessed it, a Coke commercial.

 

The song found its audience when Nina Simone recorded it in 1967. Simone’s earliest musical training was in church (she played her first piano solo in church at age 2 1/2, surprising even her mother, a Methodist preacher) and she brings out the gospel flavor of the song, sometimes even adding call-and-response. The song comes alive in her styling in a way no subsequent cover does. And there are a lot of covers, from John Denver’s anodyne version (and I like Denver, but boy, this isn’t good) to John Legend’s.

 

Here’s Simone’s recorded version

 

 

Here’s a jazzier version she sang at Montreux in 1976. Watch through to the end—her performance is so emotional—see how she hits those piano keys—you’ll get the shivers.

 

There’s one more version to watch and listen to. This one is from her performance in a documentary short called Nina. Link here, and scroll down to the video. Her improvised lyrics, her unexpected and fabulous dancing, her white pantsuit. . . this is one for the ages.

 

Note:  as of last night, poems for minutes two, three and four are still hanging in there.

minutes three and four aligned

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