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29 July 2014
Afternoon Sedition

What Song Is It You Wanna Hear?

Album cover for "Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd"

If this were the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and you were going to die in 20 minutes — just long enough to play 'Freebird' — we still wouldn't play it.

— Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock quoted in "Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

There were a few superbands when I was growing up, but none held a candle to Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Hard to believe I was eight when this was released, and twelve when the plane crashed. Man do I feel old.) Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past thirty years, here's the official word on Freebird:

A towering rock anthem crowned with the mother of all guitar solos, Freebird almost never got made at all. When guitarist Allen Collins first brought it into rehearsals, volatile singer Ronnie Van Zandt was unenthusiastic, claiming it had too many chords. Eventually he relented, writing a lyric paying tribute to the late Duane Allman. Opening with a gospel-like organ flourish which flows majestically into Collin’s sweeping slide guitar hook, Van Zandt sings with sensitivity at odds with his band’s redneck image. The climatic guitar duel was added late in the day, but soon became a centrepiece of the band’s live shows. Freebird became the template for a certain style of southern rock showstopper – witness Green Grass and High Tides by The Outlaws or Highway Song by Blackfoot for songs with similar dynamics – and assumed even greater poignancy when Van Zandt was killed along with two other band members in a plane crash in 1977. When Skynyrd reformed in the late 80s it was performed as an instrumental, with an empty mic stand centre stage adorned with Ronnie’s trademark cowboy hat. To this day it continues to live on as a rock radio staple matched only by Stairway to Heaven.

BBC Top 100 - Number 33 - Freebird

Yeah, what he said. Anyway, Freebird has achieved what few songs ever do: it has become a meme.

One recent Tuesday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Crimea had just finished its second song. The Welsh quintet's first song had gone over fairly well, the second less so, and singer/guitarist Davey MacManus looked out at the still-gathering crowd.

Then, from somewhere in the darkness came the cry, "Freebird!"

It made this night like so many other rock 'n' roll nights in America.

...

Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock cliché for years, guaranteed to elicit laughs from drunks and scorn from music fans who have long since tired of the joke. And it has spread beyond music, prompting the Chicago White Sox organist to add the song to her repertoire and inspiring a greeting card in which a drunk holding a lighter hollers "Freebird!" at wedding musicians.

Bands mostly just ignore the taunt. But one common retort is: "I've got your 'free bird' right here." That's accompanied by a middle finger. It's a strategy Dash Rip Rock's former bassist Ned Hickel used. According to fans' accounts of shows, so have Jewel and Hot Tuna's Jack Casady. Jewel declines to comment. Mr. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."

...

So what do the members of Skynyrd think of the tradition? Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother and the band's singer since 1987, says "it's not an insult at all -- I think it's kind of cool. It's fun, and people are doing it in a fun way. That's what music's supposed to be about."

Besides, Mr. Van Zant has a confession: His wife persuaded him to see Cher in Jacksonville a couple of years ago, and he couldn't resist yelling "Freebird!" himself. "My wife is going, 'Stop! Stop!' " he recalls, laughing. "I embarrassed the hell out of her."

"Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
’cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.

Bye, bye, it’s been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can’t change.
But please don’t take it badly,
’cause lord knows I’m to blame.
But, if I stayed here with you girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you’ll never change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.
Lord help me, I can’t change.

"Freebird" by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973

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