The band has just played its last song and a hush falls over the crowd as the lights quickly dim, signaling the end of the concert. As the band members exit the stage, the lights of their music equipment flicker, piercing the darkness. Veteran concert goers recognize the classic setup for the band’s forthcoming encore. As the applause begins to fill the hall, a lone voice cries out “Free Bird!” Soon other voices join in and the chanting of “Free Bird!” slowly builds to a crescendo. Back stage, some of the band members chuckle, while others get very annoyed. The cause for that annoyance is that “Free Bird” is not one of their songs; it isn’t even in their genre. Welcome to rock’s oldest joke: yelling “Free Bird” at a crowded concert.
Free Bird (also referred to as Freebird) is the legendary 10-minute (or longer) hit song by southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Incidently, the band is named after a their Jackson, Florida high school P.E. teacher, Leonard Skinner, who strictly enforced the school’s ban on long hair for males) The famous song begins with a slow piano ballad, moving into a melody featuring a slide-guitar and gospel-flavored organ, building up to a long foot-stomping, hand-clapping up-tempo three-guitar solo — inspiring some of the most entertaining air guitar playing you will ever see. Free Bird, first released in November 1974 on the album “Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd”, is a unique song in the world of music that has gone on to earn several distinctions: in addition to being one of the longest songs (up to 20 minutes in concert; 10:08 full length album version) it is considered one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), the 3rd greatest guitar solos (Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos), ranked 193 in the list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Rolling Stones Magazine), and ranked 26 in the best hard rock song of all time (VH1). And as we have already seen, it is one of the most requested concert songs that can be interpreted as a tribute to the band, the song, a special request, or depending on the performance of the band, as a taunt or as a thinly-veiled criticism.
For decades an urban myth has persisted that Free Bird is about death — as a tribute to Duane Allman, an influential southern rock guitarist who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971 or perhaps as a tribute to three band members who died in a tragic airplane accident in 1977 (realize that this is entirely improbable since the song was written three years earlier). However in several interviews, band members have confirmed that the song is really a love song, or more precisely a song about a musician who loves his girlfriend, but must follow his dream to to travel and perform. One day, the girlfriend (and later, wife) of guitarist Allan Collins, tired of the band’s constant travels, asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” In an interview with Guitar World, band member Gary Rossington, explains that the band was rehearsing the song one day attempting to find an opening melody that lead singer Ronnie Van Zant would like. Finally, Collins started playing a chord progression that Ronnie really liked; at that point, Collins sat down and wrote the lyrics, incorporating the question from his girlfriend as the opening line, in under five minutes. The trio of guitar solos was added later after a few performances of the song as simply a slow rock ballad; Rossington explains: “[Van Zant] said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so that I can take a break for a few minutes’ [Van Zant wanted to rest his vocal chords in between songs]. So I came up with the ending chord progression and Allen played over them, then I soloed and then he soloed … It all evolved out of a single jam we had one night.” Billy Powell, a roadie that played piano (and later became the band’s keyboardist), came up with a simple piano melody line that was used as the introduction to the song.
So how did this unusual rock concert ritual of yelling “Free Bird!”, often referred to as rock music’s oldest joke, began in the first place. Journalist Jason Fry, of the Wall Street Journal (Online edition), points to two specific causes. The first is a version of the song from the 1976 live album “One More for the Road” where lead singer Van Sant asks the rowdy crowd: “What song do you want to hear?” The crowd screams back in unison: “Free Bird!” The band then honors the request with a 14-minute version of the song. The second cause is directly related to antics of Kevin Matthews, a radio personality from Chicago; Fry elaborates: “[Matthews] has exhorted his fans — the KevHeads — to yell ‘Freebird’ for years, and claims to have originated the tradition in the late 1980s, when he says he hit upon it as a way to torment Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame, who was giving a concert. He figured somebody should yell something at her ‘to break up the monotony.'” Why Free Bird and not some other song? Matthews explained to Fry that the song was the first to pop in his head. The rest is music history. Free Bird!
For further reading: guitarworld.com/acoustic-nation-lynyrd-skynyrds-gary-rossington-shares-story-behind-free-bird