Why Do People Keep Screaming for ‘Free Bird’ at Concerts?
Summer concert season is officially upon us, which means that from the concourse to the concession stands, we will hear a marked increase over the next few months in the number of times some drunken fool screams for Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s ‘Free Bird’ at any particular show.
For a refresher course in this annoying-yet-enduring phenomenon, we consult writer Jason Fry‘s classic article for the Wall Street Journal, which attempts to trace the origins of what the headline refers to as ‘Rock’s Oldest Joke: Yelling ‘Free Bird’ in a Crowded Theater.’ As Fry makes clear, hearing shouts for ‘Free Bird’ is something public performers from all walks of life are forced to deal with; the article references a bootleg recording of one of late comedian Bill Hicks’ early ’90s gigs, during which he grumbles in response to the call: “And in the beginning there was the Word — ‘Free Bird.’ And ‘Free Bird’ would be yelled throughout the centuries. ‘Free Bird': the mantra of the moron.” (Heck, the guy in our illustration doesn’t even realize the song title is actually two words!)
Although the exact origins of the ‘Free Bird’ scream are shrouded in mystery, Fry quotes veteran DJ Kevin Matthews as taking credit for the practice, which he says he started as a way of hassling less desirable singers. “It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert — it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame,” he explained. “If you’re going to yell ‘Free Bird,’ yell ‘Free Bird’ at a Jim Nabors concert…The people who are conceited, the so-called artists who get really offended by it, they deserve it.”
Plenty of people dispute Matthews’ version of events, but whatever your point of view, there’s no denying that hearing a performer sarcastically implored for a ‘Free Bird’ cover is a concertgoing rite of passage. “It’s just the most astonishing phenomenon,” chuckled former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, who told Fry that he thought the best way to beat it would be to actually play all nine minutes and change of the song every time someone requests it: “That would put a stop to ‘Free Bird,’ I think. It would be a bad couple of years, but it might be worth it.”
Of course, in a live setting, ‘Free Bird’ often lasts well over nine minutes; Skynyrd’s definitive lighter-waving anthem, it’s become the greatest Southern rock show-closer of all time. Ironically, as guitarist Gary Rossington admitted in an interview with Guitar World, the song almost never made it past singer Ronnie Van Zant’s reluctance to write lyrics to the chord changes.
“Ronnie didn’t like it in the beginning. He complained that the opening chord progression was too complicated, and he couldn’t find a melody for it. Every once in a while we’d bring it up again, and he’d just tell us to forget about it,” recalled Rossington. “Then one day we were at rehearsal and [guitarist Allen Collins] started playing the chord progression, and Ronnie said, ‘That’s pretty.’ And he wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes — the whole damn thing!”
Ronnie’s brother Johnny, who fronts Skynyrd’s current incarnation, told Fry he gets a kick out of the way ‘Free Bird’ has taken on a life of its own — and he’s even added to the shouts from time to time. “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,” he laughed, admitting that he yelled for the song at a Cher concert. “My wife is going, ‘Stop! Stop!’ I embarrassed the hell out of her.”