"I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" - Billy Taylor Trio
My first time hearing this song was actually hearing Dr. Billy Taylor play this in person at the funeral for the great bassist Keter Betts. I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with Dr. Taylor several times over the years first in college and then at several jazz conventions.
This song truly encapsulates the mood of the Civil Rights Era and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964 and the anniversary of the founding of this country 238 years ago, I wanted to explore the ideas expressed in the title of this song.
Legal freedom for African-Americans hadn’t happened until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended years of segregation and second class status for citizens who endured slavery, persecution and terrorism since before the founding of this nation.
It is within that context that Dr. Taylor wrote this piece and when it was written he and many other African Americans were not free. The original recording of this song was on November 12, 1963 only 9 months before the actual signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In January of 1963 newly elected governor of Alabama George Wallace announced in his inaugural address, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" In May of that year Commissioner “Bull” Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on African American demonstrators in Alabama. In Mississippi Medgar Evers is murdered on June 12th right after JFK announces his support for civil rights. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in August and in September the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed killing 4 girls.
This is the context with which Dr. Taylor is recording this song in November of that year and only 10 days after the recording is made President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd.
I truly believe songs contain the energy and vibration of what the composer is feeling at the time and as you listen to the performance of this piece you can feel the “zeitgeist” or spirit of the time that the musicians were responding to.