This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of a Nina Simone classic, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. Simone, born Eunice Waymon, was raised in the Blue Ridge mountain town of Tryon and would have turned 78 this coming Tuesday. She died in 2003 in a seaside resort of her adopted homeland of France. In between those mountains and the sea, she carved out quite a legacy as the “High Priestess of Soul,” a moniker she resisted because she disliked music labels that boxed her in. She preferred calling her music, which spanned the genres of soul, jazz, gospel, pop, and protest, “black classical music” or “African-rooted classical music.” Her interpretation of Billy Taylor’s song, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free became a civil rights standard. The lyrics speak to the longings of a people still on the way to an elusive dream.
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me
I wish I could say all the things
That I should say
Say ‘em loud
Say ‘em clear
For the whole wide world to hear
Last year, Simone’s hometown of Tryon gave the world a loud and clear message of the pride they feel in claiming their native daughter, through a memorial project that included the unveiling of a life-size statue at the Nina Simone Plaza on Trade Street. The town’s Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project includes plans for endowed scholarships, a tribute album, and a new World Music Festival that will debut this fall. Her impact is widespread, with her voice used in movies and commercials and sampled on hip-hop songs, and with artists as diverse as John Lennon and Alicia Keys citing her as a primary influence.
It is interesting that Nina Simone’s birthday falls in the same time frame as our country’s celebration of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. We celebrate Washington, who wanted the whole world to hear that a free person contenting for liberty is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth. Say it loud! We celebrate Lincoln, who believed that freedom is the last, best hope of earth. Say it clear! And today we can join the town of Tryon in celebrating Nina Simone, a gifted diva haunted and tortured by a society that was not yet ready for full liberty and freedom for all people, who could only imagine and wish for a fuller freedom than our Presidents were able to deliver:
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.