It’s two songs, really. The second part – the seemingly endless rounds of classic chord progressions and never-to-be-matched guitar wailing – made it what it is, arguably the greatest rock song of all time. But would it be remembered that way without the first part, that sweet, melancholic ballad written and sung by perhaps the unlikeliest of troubadours, southern rock badass, Ronnie Van Zandt? Personally, I don’t think so; it was that gentle lead-in, it seems, that delicate, textured slow burn and stark contrast to the ensuing wall of guitars, that allowed the sublime onslaught that followed to be so singular in music history.
Appearing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 debut album, “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd,” the epic-even-by-epic-standards ‘Freebird’ was the final track, the record closer on side two. By historical criteria the unrestrained, over 14-minute live version from the band’s subsequent “One More From The Road” album three years later has almost assuredly become the definitive take, but let’s focus here on the lesser-heard and comparatively concise 9-minute, 7-second studio rendition. Produced with a deft hand by Al Kooper, the man who famously played organ on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and French horn on the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ the original ‘Freebird’ output was rather clean. It was actually pretty. You might even say it was elegant. For chrissakes, it had a string section! (I know, you probably don’t believe me, but it’s right there; go to 3:41 to hear it and remind yourself). Those first 4-plus minutes of Skynyrd’s studio recording, before it jarringly changed gears and took off forever for the stratosphere, were positively enchanting. And let’s not forget the simple beauty of the incisive lyrics, which began with a remark from the girlfriend of guitarist and co-writer Allen Collins, who asked him a question that became the song’s unforgettable and haunting opening line: “If I leave here tomorrow / Would you still remember me?” Van Zandt has said that the song, which has, of course, taken on such mythic proportion in the annals of rock music, was simply about “what it means to be free, in that a bird can fly wherever it wants to go.”
So, thank goodness the for-all-times legendary jamming was preceded first by its tender and pensive first half. And vice versa. If those two parts hadn’t been eternally linked together, if the song had somehow been structured differently, it would necessarily have left ‘Freebird’ a lesser whole, irredeemably altered. And as we all know, this bird you can not change.
David WachsApril 10, 2020 4:09 am
I hope itâ€™s ok to give another opinion on this â€“ as a fan of this blog and your writing. Subjective as this all is, as they say in Britain, â€˜in for a penny â€“ in for a poundâ€™ (meaning, if Iâ€™m going for it, I might as well really go for it).
Is Free Bird one of the greatest rock nâ€™ roll songs of all time, arguably?
What are my credentials, you may say, to answer this question? Iâ€™ve been listening to rock music and all the peripheral genres pretty heavily since 1975. I was a radio DJ for a couple years. I was a big Southern Rock fan during those â€˜70s years, for sure. Saw The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top, Henry Paul Band, Little Feat (Iâ€™ll address Feats later), The Dixie Dregs, The Pousette Dart Band, Les Dudek, Molly Hatchet, The Ozark Mountain Dairdevils, Southern Cross and Lost Highway Ramblers (last 2 were s-hot local NY bands who played famously at the Fore nâ€™ Aft). And my southern experience extended further outwards to Muddy Waters, Bonnie Rait, BB King, and more.
No, I would say Free Bird is not. Would I say itâ€™s one of the greatest Southern rock songs? Of course it is. It has to be number 1 on most peopleâ€™s Southern rock list â€“ primarily because of their unfortunate demise. Is it the best
Southern rock song, in my opinion? Not sure really. It pretty much kicks arse, like so many others do.
My Skynyrd connection â€“ like many in the New York area, we felt ripped off when Skynyrd died in that plane crash (Oct 20, 1977), as we were about to see them at Madison Square Garden the month after. I can remember in my minds eye the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert ticket with their name in the middle and Ted Nugent warming up for them. Nugent became the headline and, luckily, Marc Bolanâ€™s T Rex warmed up for him. Nugent sucked, of course, but T Rex was a great first rock band for me to see live â€“ Lynyrd Skynyrd was to be my first proper concert live. Yet, it wasnâ€™t to be. Shame. Who didnâ€™t want to see Free bird live? If I was to be voting in â€™77, of course it would be one of the best rock songs of all time. I know better now.
Let me deal with the Little Feat factor before I say anything. Theyâ€™re one of my top 5 bands, period. Are they a Southern rock band? Many include them in their lists. I wouldnâ€™t. They are from the South, but, in my opinion, in no way are they a â€˜Southern rockâ€™ band, like The Allmans, Skynyrd, The Outlaws, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, or Marshal Tucker were. Southern rock is usually, not always, defined by some kind of â€˜guitar armyâ€™ and also slow southern twangy ballads, usually writing about the south, whiskey and woman. Feats did write â€˜Oh Atlantaâ€™, but I would say their intention was to speak for America, and not the South. So, I would not include them the discussion about top Southern rock songs. If they were, theyâ€™d be right at the top with about 30 songs (Spanish Moon, Fat Man in a Bathtub, Willin, Mercenary Territory, Cold Cold Cold, Gringo, Rock n’ Roll Doctor, Rocket in my Pocket, ,etc.). They created their own sound, which is almost un-boxable, which is why they traversed the tastes of so many people.
According to Spotify (the best market research tool available), if you look at their Top 5 songs listened to per band, this is what youâ€™ll find when it comes to Southern rock (approx.):
1. Sweet Home Alabama â€“ Lynyrd Skynyrd â€“ 565,000,000
2. Free bird â€“ Lynryd Skynyrd -235,000,000
3. La Grange â€“ ZZ Top â€“ 215,000,000
4. Sharp Dressed Man â€“ ZZ Top â€“ 180,000,000
5. Simple Man â€“ Lynyrd Skynrd â€“ 190,000,000
6. Ramblin Man â€“ The Allman Brothers â€“ 108,000,000
So, no one comes close to Skynyrd with listening numbers, and ZZ. I would say, at the time, Free Bird was THE song for Southern rock fans, but clearly Sweet Home took the mantle because itâ€™s a more memorable, easy-to-sing-along-to-song, and stood the test of time. So, is Sweet Home Alabama arguably the greatest rock song of all time? Of course not. But over 300,000,000 think itâ€™s better than Free Bird. Hmmm.
And coming back to whether Free Bird is one of the best rock songs? I just canâ€™t think of it as rock, as I canâ€™t think of Southern rock as Rock. Can you really say itâ€™s arguably better than Stairway to Heaven, Wonâ€™t Get Fooled
Again, Comfortably Numb, I Canâ€™t Get No Satisfaction, Born to Runâ€¦and so on.
Interestingly, Rolling Stone magazine put Free Bird at no. 193. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-151127/lynyrd-skynyrd-free-bird-58122/
Itâ€™s worth noting that Rolling Stone include all genres of popular music, from soul to punk, from Southern Rock to R&B, etc. So stating anything is â€˜the bestâ€™ and these kind of lists is a tough one to get oneâ€™s head around.
I guess what it all comes down to is stories, personal experience, and Einsteinâ€™s theory of relativity. Who cares anyway, really? Do you care what I think? Probably not. Iâ€™ve just got Corona-time on my hands, and felt like writing this morning. Been listening to The Allman Brothers Unplugged album while writing this, so sweet. Skynyrd aren’t close to the Brothers for talent and sensitivity, really, if we’re being honest – and the Brothers can kick arse along side the best of them.
Never really got my head around Skynyrd, as a band. In a way, they were a 1970s party-band. You drank Molsons and threw Frisbees to them, playing out of the car speakers of one of your friendâ€™s hatchbacks. The Brothers and The Outlaws were it for me, more than any, as they were true musicians and true storytellers. Just canâ€™t include Feats in the Southern rock conversationâ€¦it would cancel them all out, basically.
Thanks for the inspiration to write this am, Billy G. Peace.
Bill G.April 10, 2020 10:20 am
Awesome reply, Wachs! Actually, that’s more than a reply, let’s call it an essay, maybe a treatise! So…completely subjective, of course, and as you say, “Who cares anyway, really?’ I decided to try to write a bit on ‘Freebird’ and I was pretty much just throwing that silly claim out there. There’s really no such thing as “best” or “greatest,” not in music, and not in any art, right? (and I had seen where Rolling Stone put it on their list, but chose to leave that out : ) However gratuitously one might choose to label one tune as the “greatest rock song of all time,” here’s one method to which my friend Greg and I subscribe: the song you’d most definitely continue to sit in your car listening to all the way through til it ends, even if you’ve already arrived home and are sitting in your driveway – which for me ‘Freebird’ wins (interestingly, ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ has proven to be a close second). Thanks for reading – and for writing – Wachs. And Southern Cross at the Fore ‘N’ Aft was the best!