Freebird: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
You wait for it at every show. You know it’s going to happen and it’s just a matter of time. It’s the never-ending joke with no punchline. Finally, when the band has that awkward space in their set between songs—maybe they’re switching instruments or tuning their guitars—it comes like a knife through the air.
Yep. They did it again. It has become the most annoying aspect of live performance and one that never dies. The yelling of the name of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song has become so ingrained in our culture that it is assumed someone will yell it at some point during a show—any show. But what is the origin of this banal hollering? Why do the culprits keep it up? And is there anything we, the good people of rock and roll, can do about it? I went to the ranks to try and sort out the why’s and how’s and came back with some odd ideas.
Like most traditions, the origins of this one are cloudy. As a teenager going to concerts, I thought it was just the natural extension of yelling for requests. An extension that was well past its relevancy some 10 and 15 years after half of Skynyrd was wiped out in a plane crash, but an extension nonetheless. Most bands have a go-to cover that they can pull out to win over an audience. In the late 70s, two songs in particular were most prevalent: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”
Odd choices if you ask me since they’re both pseudo-ballads that jar the unsuspecting slow dancer into a weird funk as they both crescendo into 70s rock guitar bliss. But who am I to question the masses? These are the two songs that EVERY guitar player in the world can play (to varying degrees of success). Both songs do have immediately identifiable chord progressions that are sure to raise the Bud-filled glasses of roughnecks throughout the nation and are therefore perfect as lubrication for a hostile audience. But in the end, “Freebird” wins out as the Grande Dame of cover songs. Why? And why do some dopes still call for it from bands who have no business covering Southern Rock? Does anyone really expect indie rockers to bust out some Steve Gaines licks?
The answer may be in another theory of the tradition’s origin. During a break on Skynyrd’s One More From the Road live album, Ronnie Van Zant asks the crowd what they want to hear. The overwhelming answer is “Freebird,” a response which some believe this now all-too-lame tradition is paying homage to. Now, Zeppelin would NEVER beseech the crowd for requests. They never cared what you wanted to hear. As one Tom Clark from this long forgotten listserv conversation put it:
You see, Skynyrd was a much more egalitarian band. They encouraged the fans express themselves freely, no matter the personal disgrace. This is obvious to anyone who’s ever been to a Skynyrd show, and, to a lesser extent, an Outlaws show.
Zeppelin, on the other hand, were an entity unto themselves. There was never any “How can we please you” chatter from Mr. Plant – the Mighty Ones were just going to pummel you with the Hammer Of The Gods(tm) and you were gonna like it.
So we may have some understanding as to why “Freebird” won out as cover song favorite, but why, all these years later, does the tradition of yelling for it persist and can anything be done about it? After all, it’s now a joke, not an actual request. Right?
Again looking to the people who care about these things, I approached a couple of music bulletin boards and known culprits and asked the participants to fess up to being “that guy.” I also asked them why they continue to engage in an action that is so far beyond entertaining. It’s like the guy who still gets the mullet hair cut even though he knows it’s the butt of all jokes muttered when he walks into a bar.
GLONO’s own Jeff Sabatini has made a name for himself as the last of the posse to partake in this most offensive action. For years, he’s been that guy and he happens to be blessed with the loudest voice in recorded history. It’s impossible to ignore his howling at shows. I emailed the old boy to get to the root of this obnoxious behavior:
DP: Why do you still yell “Freebird” at shows? I am curious. Please tell me your reason, I might need it for an article.
Sab: I don’t yell it anymore. You made me quit, remember? The reasons I used to yell it pretty much all revolve around irritating/mocking the performer. And I like the song and wouldn’t mind hearing more bands play it. How’s that?
DP: Have you really quit? Irritating/mocking the performer? You’ve yelled it at every one of my shows. You mocking me? Why I outta…
Sab: With you it was just irritating. You know I ache with jealousy since I’ve never been able to fulfill my dreams of being a rock star.
DP: I know how you feel…
So Sabu is actively trying to antagonize the band. End of story? One responder to my posts on bulletin boards said she does it just to be an ass. Not really trying to irritate anyone in particular; just everyone there.
“I have done it (only once or twice) and not just at shows (basketball games, class presentations) because it’s so unexpected and crazy,” said Kimberly Mays who responded to my inquiry on the CMJ Board. “If something moves me to just be an ass, I too yell, ‘FREEBIRD!!!!’”
Mays wasn’t even inspired by the aforementioned Skynyrd album.
“At the end of a Lunachicks cd (I think Pretty Ugly) some guy is clapping and is like, ‘shit… c’mon… Freebird!’” said Mays. “I lost it! I thought it was the most hilarious thing.”
Christ! Does that mean we’re in for another generation of lunkheads yelling out for “Freebird?” Are we such a humorless society that we can’t see that this joke has more than run its course? Or am I just a lame-ass who can’t see the ironic humor in a joke that was never funny to begin with?
No, I’m right. It’s annoying and obnoxious. It’s a line mostly thrown around by people who still bust out their Beavis and Butthead impressions at the mention of the words “duty” or “penal.” Are we doomed to this wretched fate or can we fight back? Some bands already are.
Phil Ajjarapu, from the Chicago-based band Dry County said his band simply played the song every, single time someone yelled out for it—no matter how many times that may be in a night. Ajjarapu said that it usually wasn’t long before mob justice took care of the situation.
“I can only remember once that we played ‘Freebird’ like 3 times in one set and it didn’t take long for the crowd to take the offending party off the premises where we presumed that he was picked up by cops or something,” he said.
But like all weapons, the Freebird Tactical Response must be handled with care lest you invite retaliation and, therefore, escalation.
“We also played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ every time that was requested, and of the two, ‘Sweet Home’ was the more requested song,” said Ajjarapu. “Playing redneck music will introduce you to a lot of colorful people though, that’s for sure. But that’s a different crowd, the whole place will dance to Skynyrd and when you’re in a band, isn’t that what you want?”
Perhaps. But what I think all good, thinking people the world around can agree that this senseless act must be stopped. This aggression will not stand!
There’s also the pre-emptive strike. Indie darlings Clem Snide whipped out a blistering version of Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” to close out their fantastic Chicago show two years ago, seemingly before the obligatory utterance could even leave one’s lips. This particular cover was so good it was at once an acknowledgement of the absurd request and a stake in the heart of the would-be heckler. All requests—real or otherwise—stopped on a dime.
In 9th grade, I had a teacher named Jim Rex who told us that a joke was only funny the first and third time you hear it; only the first and third and never again. If only everyone could be as wise as Mr. Rex.
UPDATE: A nice southern girl named Emily sent us a response to this article, showing us that to her and her father, the song is more than just a lame gag uttered from the lips of drunken dopes: One More From the Road.