Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird…Epic Rock Songs Week

There is one more song coming after Free Bird…and we will finish this up.

When I was playing in clubs and bars we played mostly British rock. We didn’t know many Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. There would always be one drunk jackass person in the back that yelled “Free Bird”…it never failed! I have to admit it was funny the first few times. The song is a classic. It is one of rock’s anthems.

Like the others this week it builds up and it does have an electrifying solo to close it out. I’ve heard this live before and it is one of the great live songs you can hear.

The song was usually dedicated to Duane Allman and he died in 1971, two years before “Free Bird” was released. The song was written long before his death. The double guitar solo at the end is the same style as many early Allman Brothers songs.

Free Bird was on their debut album Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd…They gave it the title because well… they knew people would not be able to pronounce their name. The album was a very solid album and it peaked at #27 in the Billboard Album Chart, #47 in Canada, and #44 in the UK in 1973. They would soon open up for The Who on their Quadrophenia tour and that helped build their audience. 

This song began as a ballad without the guitar solos at the end, and Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded it that way for the first time in 1972. Guitarist Allen Collins had been working on the song on and off for the previous two years. Collins wrote the music long before Ronnie Van Zant came up with lyrics for it. Van Zant finally got inspired one night and had Collins and Gary Rossington play it over and over until he wrote the words. 

At the time of recording, the song was only 7 1/2 minutes long, but throughout the next year, Collins continued to refine the song until it was recorded for the final cut of the Pronounced album in 1973. It ended up 9:08 minutes long.

MCA did not want this on the album. They thought it was too long and that no radio station would play it. Even the band never thought it was going to be a hit.

The song was released as a single in 1974 and peaked at #19 in the Billboard 100 adn #58 in Canada. In 1976, a live version was released from the One More For the Road live album. It peaked at #38 in the Billboard 100 and #48 in Canada. 

 

From Songfacts

Frontman Johnny Van Zant discussed this song in a track-by-track commentary to promote the band’s 2010 CD/DVD Live From Freedom Hall. He said: “For years Skynyrd has always closed the show with that song and the song has different meanings for different people. This kid was telling me that they used it for their graduation song and not too long ago somebody told me that they used it at a funeral. And really it’s a love song, its one of the few that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ever had. It’s about a guy and a girl. Of course at the end it was dedicated to Duane Allman from the band Allman Brothers because it goes into the guitar part. If you can get through that one you’ve had a good night at a Skynyrd show.”

The lyrics are about a man explaining to a girl why he can’t settle down and make a commitment. The opening lines, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” were inspired by Allen Collins’ girlfriend Kathy, who had asked him this very question during a fight. 

The album version runs 9:08, with the last lyric uttered at 4:55 (“fly high, free bird, yeah”). Those last four minutes comprise perhaps the most famous instrumental passage in rock history. Skynyrd had three guitarists: Allen Collins, Ed King and Gary Rossington, allowing them to jam for extended periods long after most songs would peter out.

After the 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, his brother, Johnny, took his place. Performing the song was very emotional for Johnny, and for a while, he wouldn’t sing it – the band played it as an instrumental and the crowd would sing the words.

This is a classic rock anthem. Shouting it out as a request at concerts became a rock and roll joke, and every now and then a musician will actually play it. The 2007 Mitch Myers book The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling explores this subject in a work of fiction about the first person ever to shout “Free Bird” at a concert.

In places, the high-pitched guitar mimics a bird flying free. This is something Duane Allman did on the 1970 Derek & the Dominos track “Layla,” where at the end he plays the “crying bird.” In that song, it signifies Layla’s untamed spirit. In “Free Bird,” the guy is the elusive one, refusing to be caged by intimacy.

Like “Free Bird,” “Layla” loses most of its mojo when cut down for single release. The full version of that song runs 7:10, with the radio edit truncated to 2:43.

Skynyrd always plays this as the last song at their shows.

In the US, this wasn’t released as a single until a year after the album came out. By that time, “Sweet Home Alabama” had already been released, and the single version of “Free Bird” was edited down. The long version from the album has always been more popular.

This Southern Rock classic was produced by a northerner: Al Kooper, who discovered the band a year earlier when they were playing a gig in Atlanta. Kooper, a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears, is from Brooklyn, New York, but he gelled with Skynyrd, crafting their sound for wide appeal without diluting it. He produced their next two albums as well.

Despite having three guitarists, “Free Bird” opens with an organ as the lead instrument, giving the guitars more impact when they arrive. In early versions of the song, this section was done on piano, but Al Kooper convinced the band that organ was the way to go. He played the instrument on the track, credited on the album as “Roosevelt Gook.” Kooper had the bona fides to pull it off: he came up with the organ section on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Ronnie Van Zant thought at first that this song “had too many chords to write lyrics for.” Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington commented in an interview with Blender magazine, “But after a few months, we were sitting around, and he asked Allen to play those chords again. After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing, ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ and it fit great. It wasn’t anything heavy, just a love song about leavin’ town, time to move on. Al put the organ on the front, which was a very good idea. He also helped me get the sound of the delayed slide guitar that I play – it’s actually me playing the same thing twice, recording one on top of the other, so it sounds kind of slurry, echoey.” 

In 1988, the group Will To Power went to #1 in America with a mellow medley of this song and Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” The official title of that track is “Baby, I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley (Free Baby).”

While the lyrics contain the phrase “free as a bird,” the title itself (“Free Bird”) is used just once, right before the guitar solos begin: “Won’t you fly high, free bird.” 

Free Bird

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelin’ on now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

But if I stay here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
And the bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change
Lord knows, I can’t change

Bye-bye baby, it’s been sweet love, yeah yeah
Though this feelin’ I can’t change
Please don’t take it so badly
‘Cause Lord knows, I’m to blame

If I stay here with you girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
And the bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change

Lord knows, I can’t change
Lord help me, I can’t change
Lord, I can’t change
Won’t you fly high, free bird yeah

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

37 thoughts on “Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird…Epic Rock Songs Week”

    1. In these parts over the past four or five years, it’s a toss up between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions”, probably closely followed by “1999” by Prince. Every day, every rock station, it almost seems every hour.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. to some degree maybe, though I have been constantly surprised at how much radio stations are alike over the past ten years. Lordy, the alt rock station in toronto had a guy (likely the producer) on the morning show around 2005-10 or so that called himself ‘Danger Boy’ , kind of a guy to be butt of the morning DJs jokes. So in random conversation with my sweetie, she tells me of a party she was at here in Texas where this guy from local radio who called himself “danger boy” and was on the morning show showed up… I mean, it’s so formulaic it’s laughable. The station in Toronto I mention a lot that was great and independant in the ’80s was CFNY, now it’s a generic alt rock loud station called The Edge. The alt rock station in Dallas? Yep, The Edge. every city I pass through seems to have either a “Bear” or “wolf” playing classic rock…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That is pathetic… Danger Boy….yea right.
        Cumulus Media, Inc is one of the giant companies.
        I do like going through towns and listening to AM…it’s the only way you get some local flavor.

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      3. Well, that Prince song came out around 1984 or so, even though it was called “1999”. Even if you are right about the lower royalties after a time , it still doesn’t explain why they annoy us all by playing some tracks to death while virtually ignoring other songs which were also hits in the same era for the same artists. A total lack of understanding of the audience, I think.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. So I’m probably in the minority here since I generally like the Eagles, especially their more rock-oriented phase with Joe Walsh. To me, “Hotel California” is an epic rock song as well, particularly because of the great drawn-out guitar solo at the end. Another tune with what I think is an epic guitar solo is Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. I’ve seen them live twice, and Gilmor was killing it when playing that solo.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I love Joe…don’t get me wrong. I’ve said this before…I live in the south and people here I swear think the Eagles are southern….wrong southern though…they need to look west to California…yes it does belong but the one song I regret not adding was Good Vibrations.
        Gilmour is a great guitar player.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. A good tune – not one I’d want to hear ad nauseum, but somehow I’ve always been somewhere where radio doesn’t seem to play it that much. “Sweet Home Alabama” on the other hand, has always been pretty prolific on radio both in Ontario and Texas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Where I live… oh yea…I hear it. But…not as much as I did in the 80s and 90s but it is played quite a bit but it’s because of where I live.
      It was used to great effect in Kingsmen if you saw that…the Church scene is brutal

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    1. You think this one is bad…wait til you get to the next one lol. No I know what you mean…I heard it last night for the first time in about a year…it sounded better. It’s a shame that radio did that to most of these songs….but that is popularity.

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      1. One good thing about not listening to commercial radio (which I think will soon be no more, as people can go to youtube, etc) is that no more excellent tunes suffer terminal burnout.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I stopped listening to commercial radio long ago. I live in the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs), and with a population of only around 450,000, it’s too small a market for good radio. But hell, even the famed KROQ in Los Angeles plays the same Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters songs every couple of hours! It’s maddening.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I stopped many years ago. Radio has changed… now stations are pre-programmed to the same music.
        In Nashville where I am we have around the same except a few old southern bands are still played.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great tune that’s certainly worthy to bee called epic. The one Skynyrd song that was over-exposed on the radio in Germany while I was growing up there was “Sweet Home Alabama” – though while I’ve listened to it countless times, I still dig it. I hardly recall the radio station I listened to most of the time played “Free Bird” – perhaps in part because of the length. By comparison, Alabama is pretty short – damn, now I got that tune in my head! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No it’s those solos at the end. This is morbid but teenage funerals and weddings…this one and Stairway to Heaven.
      One thing all of these songs have in common is they build gradually.

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      1. Ah right. With such a long song I’m a little surprised people got to the end en mass…! So there’s a teenage cultural thing going on. Makes sense. DOn’t think this track is loved in other countries as it in the states, unlike like all the other picks

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It does have a nice melody but no…I don’t get why it was giant either…this or Hotel California.

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