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."