Thursday, August 26, 2004

I wish I knew how it would feel to drink Coke with Nina Simone

My favorite current commercial is the one in which a young woman walks down a city street handing out bottles of Coca-Cola to passersby as she sings the classic Nina Simone civil rights anthem, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." I'm sure this ad strikes a lot of people as annoying sweet and sappy, but I would remind those people that Coca-Cola pulled this same stunt back in the day with "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," and that earworm sold enough Coke to float Australia. Trust me — they know what they're doing.

I like this ad because the singer — she's a black Englishwoman named Sharlene Hector — does a nice a cappella rendition of the song (with aid from an invisible gospel chorus), and you know how much I love the unaccompanied human voice. Ms. Hector is also a lovely natural type not often featured in commercials, and she has a winning smile she flashes at the very end of the spot. Her charm is so infectious you can't help singing along.

The ad agency didn't use songwriter Billy Taylor's complete lyrics from the Nina Simone recording — it's only a 60-second commercial, after all. So I'm pasting them below for your edification, and so you can join in the next time the ad airs. I don't know how the late Ms. Simone (who, sadly, passed away last year, leaving the world short a monumental musical talent) felt about Coca-Cola. I can guess how she might have felt about a megabuck corporation co-opting a deeply personal civil rights song in the pursuit of crass commercialism. I can't help thinking, though, that she'd at least have enjoyed the job Ms. Hector does with her song.
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 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 longing to give
I wish I could live like I'm longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I'm way overdue I'd be starting anew.

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
And I'd sing 'cause I'd know that
And I'd sing 'cause I'd know that
And I'd sing 'cause I'd know that
I'd know how it feels to be free
I'd know how it feels to be free
I'd know how it feels to be free
By the way, if you enjoy great soulful jazz vocals (and what right-thinking person doesn't?), and you don't own any Nina Simone albums, hustle down to your neighborhood music store and pick up a couple of her CDs. Just a tip from your Uncle Swan.

You movie fans can hear the original Nina Simone rendition of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" on the soundtrack of the film Ghosts of Mississippi. Several other movies also feature Simone songs:

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