I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

In interviews, and in her autobiography, Nina Simone liked to describe the sense of power she felt when, as a child, she would play music in the church. She also frequently alluded to a sense of oneness she would experience on stage when, treating her audience much as she would a church congregation, she engaged in a process of musical transportation. Examples of this process can be found in various performances of a song she first recorded on her 1967 album Silk & Soul. ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, written by Simone’s fellow North Carolinian Billy Taylor, works, in its basic form, as one of many “freedom songs” written during the civil rights era that brought together aspects of folk, soul and gospel. Simone’s studio version provides instant swing with its rolling piano chords and finger-clicking intro.  Like the soul- and gospel-inspired compositions of Charles Mingus and Horace Silver, the instruments (here, Simone’s piano and the simple click rhythm) seem to already be singing before any words are uttered, a feeling also present in Taylor’s instrumental jazz trio recording (and in this later performance by Taylor).  However, it is the famously yearning words that connect Simone’s version to the spirit of the times, becoming a collective anthem alongside Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and the ubiquitous ‘We Shall Overcome’. The key words and phrases in Dick Dallas’s lyric – “break the chains”, “remove all the bars that keep us apart”, “every man should be free”, “longing to live”, “I’d soar to the sun”, “I’d sing ‘cos I’d know” – resonate with the classic freedom songs of the era. If the ever-present wish, with its seeming lack of fulfilment, sounds a melancholy note, the actual music sends a more affirmative message. Stabs of brass provide soul power and gospel clarification, suggesting that all the ambitions voiced in the song, the “longing to live” might just be within reach. It is even possible, due to the shift of the modal verb and Simone’s articulation, to hear the repeated “I’d know how it feels” at the end of the song as “I know how it feels”. Like many of the finest freedom songs, a certain amount of ambiguity refuses a “closed” meaning and allows for the imagination of utopian space.


At the same time, for all the song’s collective message, it is always possible to read other messages into Simone’s performances and to see certain songs as vehicles for connecting different aspects of the artist’s life. In a filmed performance of the song used in Joel Gold’s film Nina, Simone slows the tempo and opens the song space by adding improvised elements.  As the crowd clap and shout affirmative messages in response to Simone’s clearly articulated vocals, the concert takes on the atmosphere of a religious revival meeting. At the point where the artist embarks on a jazz-influenced piano solo, Gold’s editor Frederick Charney intercuts material from a filmed interview in which Simone describes such meetings: “Nothing stops happening until everyone in the room is satisfied … there’s no such things as the end [of a song]”. Simone describes the interactive nature of song performance in revivals as “like being in touch with a hundred or 200 human beings at one time … that’s a fantastic thing”. Cutting back to the concert performance, we witness Simone improvising additional wishes to Dallas’s lyric (“I’d sing so much better … I’d dance so much better … I’d be a little less mean”) as a “call” to the band’s response. To enthusiastic audience feedback, she testifies to a dream of flying and speaks of having her eyes opened to a “new vision”. Having now assumed the role of gospel preacher, Simone continues: “The Bible says ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind'”, then jumps up from her piano stool to take a position at the front of the stage, swaying with the music, screaming, clapping and leading her congregation. Returning to the piano, she sings about a moment in her life when she would know the feeling of freedom, stretching the final “free!” over several seconds. The phrase “for one moment in my life” resonates with her use of almost identical words during the contemporaneous “Martin Luther King Suite” (“for one moment of your life”), connecting to that testimony and showing how Simone, like King, used particular “formulas” and “key-signature phrases” as part of her affective work (see Richard Lischer’s book The Preacher King).


In an earlier section of Gold’s film, Simone attempts to answer a question posed by an interviewer: ”What is ‘free’ to you?” In response, she describes a feeling she occasionally gets onstage, then clarifies freedom as “no fear” and “something to really really feel … like a new way of seeing”. With the help of Gold and Charney, Simone is able to take possession of Taylor and Dallas’s song, connecting it to her religious background and to the freedom she sought in performing music. At the same time, the freedom she describes involves giving herself over to a situation that is larger than she or any one individual, one that is created through religious possession and group psychology. The “new way of seeing” echoes other statements Simone made about Saint Paul-like moments of “coming through” or “turning on”, suggesting she attained (and was taken over by) a new subjectivity in response to such epiphanies. For the philosopher Alain Badiou, who sees in Saint Paul an example of a subjectivity based upon recognition of universal truth, the realization engendered by epiphany is one which, through the processes of fidelity, searching and constant renewal, allows the subject to reject conformity. Badiou uses the same words of Paul quoted by Simone – “Do not be conformed to the present century, but be transformed by the renewal of your thought [mind]” (Romans 12.2) – to highlight the universalism that, for Badiou, is Paul’s greatest legacy:

Far from fleeing from the century, one must live with it, but without letting oneself be shaped, conformed. It is the subject, rather than the century, who, under the injunction of his faith, must be transformed. And the key to this transformation, this “renewal”, lies in thought.

Freedom, then, can be gained through nonconformity, and thought – the quest for the knowledge of how it would feel – is the first step towards freedom.


Another filmed performance of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ combines the religious aspects mentioned above with a kind of “embodying” of the song that, paradoxically, allows the singer to break free of her own body for a fleeting moment and to suggest that one of the freedoms promised is, in fact, freedom from bodily determinism. The performance comes from Simone’s astonishing set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Simone begins the song with the familiar piano motif, not deviating far from the recorded version, although she extends the pre-vocal section as if to get into the groove.  The subsequent rendition also follows the recorded version, save for a few interjections, a greater amount of jazz phrasing on the vocals and some harsh piano stabs (something of a Simone trademark, deployed at strategic “punctuating” moments and very frequently at the close of songs). The changes come towards the end of the song, the first being when Simone shifts into falsetto as she imagines being a bird, her voice soaring with the lyric to a height all the more notable for her infrequent use of such high pitch. For a few moments it is as if she really is breaking free of anything in the song that might be binding her, even the very thing that makes singing and playing possible, the music itself.

“Spirit’s movin’ now”, Simone observes, realising the new freedom she has found and connecting it to a religious notion of transcendence. As if confirming the confusion over whether she originally sang “I’d know how it feels” or “I know how it feels”, she testifies to the latter as she improvises new lyrics and interjections: “Got news for you. I already know … Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothing on me”. She shouts the word “free!” four times in succession, then develops it into “I’m free and I know it”. Changing to a new, seemingly improvised tune, Simone sing-speaks the truth she’s discovered: “I found out how it feels not to be chained to any thing, to any race to any faith to anybody, to any creed to any hopes to any anything”. Again, we could read this “religiously”, seeing this freedom as an escape from earthly concerns, even from the body itself. However, given the denial of faith and creed here, it is equally tempting to connect the performance to the kind of identity politics later theorised by writers such as Judith Butler. This was the other side to Simone’s assertive anthems (notably ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’), this loss of bodily identification that imagined freedom from biology and culture, a freedom that would find its ultimate expression in her extraoridnary, but little known, reading of Exuma’s ’22nd Century’. The Montreux performance of ‘I Wish I knew’ presents yet another aspect of Simone’s enigma: how she could turn what seems to be the very epitome of humanistic communication, this ‘civil rights anthem’, into a vision of posthumanism. Transformation indeed.

2 Responses to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”

  1. Thanks for this wonderful article. I just heard the live version from Joel Gold’s film recently and it is mesmerizing and simply fantastic. I have trouble hearing what the band is repeating in the background over over and over towards the end of the song. Do you have an idea?

  2. […] 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 […]

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