March 23, 2005

I heard this on this past Saturday's edition of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" (it's Limerick Challenge #3, which you can see and hear here) - the mystery of why drunks shout "Freebird!" at concerts gets probed by the Wall Street Journal.

"It's just the most astonishing phenomenon," says Mike Doughty, the former front man of the "deep slacker jazz" band Soul Coughing, adding that "these kids, they can't be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd."

Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock clichι 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. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."

Others have offered more than the bird. On a recent live album, Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock declares that "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."


How did this strange ritual begin? "Freebird" is hardly obscure — it's a radio staple consistently voted one of rock's greatest songs. One version — and an important piece of the explanation — anchors Skynyrd's 1976 live album "One More From the Road."

On the record, singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was killed along with two other bandmates in a 1977 plane crash, asks the crowd, "What song is it you want to hear?" That unleashes a deafening call for "Freebird," and Skynyrd obliges with a 14-minute rendition.

To understand the phenomenon, it also helps to be from Chicago. [...] Kevin Matthews is a Chicago radio personality who 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." The longtime Skynyrd fan settled on "Freebird," saying the epic song "just popped into my head."

Matthews says the call was heeded, inspiring him to go down the listings of coming area shows, looking for entertainers who deserved a "Freebird" and encouraging the KevHeads to make it happen.

But he bemoans the decline of "Freebird" etiquette. "It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert — it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame," he says. "If you're going to yell 'Freebird,' yell 'Freebird' at a Jim Nabors concert."


It's possible "Freebird" began as a rallying cry for Skynyrd Nation and a sincere request from guitar lovers, was made famous by the live cut, taken up by ironic clubgoers, given new life by Matthews, and eventually lost all meaning and became something people holler when there's a band onstage.

But as with many mysteries, the true origin may be unknowable — cold comfort for bands still to be confronted with the inevitable cry from the darkness.

For them, here's a strategy tried by a brave few: Call the audience's bluff. Phish liked to sing it a cappella. The Dandy Warhols play a slowed-down take singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor describes as sung "like T. Rex would if he were on a lot of pills." And Dash Rip Rock has performed the real song in order to surprise fans expecting the parody.

For his part, Doughty suggests that musicians make a pact: Whenever anyone calls for "Freebird," play it in its entirety — and if someone calls for it again, play it again.

"That would put a stop to 'Freebird,' I think," he says. "It would be a bad couple of years, but it might be worth it."

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, 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."

There. I feel like I can go on with my day now. Well, as soon as I get my lighter back from security, anyway.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 23, 2005 to Music | TrackBack

Rock Critic Dave Marsh had a good idea for a lame rock concert. He suggested that you yell "Please, Reverend Jim, more Kool Aid!".

As far as Florence Henderson goes, I think I would simply slit my wrists if I ever was forced to attend one of her concerts. I would be curious, however, to see how she would pull off "Freebird". :-)

Posted by: William Hughes on March 23, 2005 8:17 AM

The tradition of yelling "Freebird" began well before the late 80s. When I was in high school in Southeast Texas in the early 80s, Freebird was used, without irony, as a rallying cry for southern rock fans. This later moved into ironic use. In the mid-80s friend was at a club where a country punk band was playing. When someone yelled out "Freebird" as a joke, the band said, "We don't know it, but how about this." The band then stumbled through a punk version of Sweet Home Alabama.

Still, you've got to wonder why the WSJ wasted ink on this.


Posted by: Jeb on March 23, 2005 10:55 AM

Chicago? Late 80's?

Oh, that's such crap. I made this up.

1984, at a Houston club called Cabaret Voltaire. I don't remember the name of the band, but my friend Ray Isle was in it. Ray says "What is it you want to hear?" which for some reason made the Skynyrd quote pop into my head, and I yelled "Freebird".

And everybody laughed. Because it wasn't worn out yet, it was funny at the time. Plus we were all of the generation that had grown up hearing that Skynyrd quote on the radio all the damn time.

Posted by: rayinaustin on March 23, 2005 12:14 PM

For the record, when I went to see Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges back in '86, Kottke, as is still his wont, was taking requests from the audience toward the end of his set. Someone yelled Freebird. Being perhaps the greatest slide guitarist of his generation (and if not the greatest, at worst awfully close), Leo obliged. On 12 string.

He even segued from Free bird straight into Jesu, joy of Mans Desiring. The evening, as a whole, might well have been the best concert I've ever seen. But I'm a guitar player/fanboy, so what do I know...

Posted by: Ron on March 23, 2005 3:22 PM

Hey, there is a sequel to it- and i wrote it


Posted by: todd steed on August 11, 2005 8:23 PM

The freebird legend lives on, we're not a big famous rock band but so many freebird requests, in jest or not. We just decided to learn it...And what a blast, the song is such fun to play!!!!!!!
Inappropriate or not, I think Skynard fans should revel in the longevity, everyone needs to learn a passable version to avoid having to say "we don't know that one"!

Posted by: Joe Bennett on February 19, 2006 8:23 PM