“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is nine minutes in length, but endless in its cultural and musical impact.
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The song was first released in 1973 as the closing track on the band’s debut album Lynyrd Skynyrd (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). The lyrics carry the emotional depth that Lynyrd Skynyrd is known for, capturing both the liberation and loneliness of freedom. Although the words end around the five-minute mark, the song continues for four more minutes with one of the most notable guitar passages in rock history. In Lynyrd Skynyrd’s massive discography, “Free Bird” marks one of their greatest musical achievements.
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see
When “Free Bird” was released, some fans speculated that it was a tribute to Duane Allman, the Allman Brothers Band guitarist who passed away in 1971. The guitar riffs at the end are reminiscent of Allman’s, causing people to believe it was about him. While the band occasionally dedicated the song to Allman during performances, “Free Bird” was actually written years before his death.
The lyrics tell the story of a man leaving a woman because he cannot bring himself to settle down with her. He expresses that he does not want to hurt her, but there are too many things he wants to do before committing to a relationship.
But if I stay here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
These words were inspired by a real experience of Skynyrd guitarist and songwriter Allen Collins. His girlfriend Kathy Johns actually asked him the question, If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? He wrote her words down and used them as inspiration for the song.
Bye, bye, baby, it’s been a sweet love, yeah yeah
Though this feeling I can’t change
But please don’t take it so badly
‘Cause Lord knows I’m to blame
Despite the finality of the lyrics, Collins and Johns eventually got married in 1970.
Collins worked on the song for about two years before the band played it for the first time. When frontman Ronnie Van Zant heard Collins and Gary Rossington playing it one night, he ended up writing the rest of the lyrics.
“We were sitting around, and [Van Zant] asked Allen to play those chords again,” Rossington recalled in an interview. “After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing, ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ and it fit great. It wasn’t anything heavy, just a love song about leaving town, time to move on.”
When the band recorded “Free Bird” for the first time in 1972, there were no guitar solos at the end. It ran seven and a half minutes long, but they still did not feel like it was finished.
They continued to work on the song while creating the album, and the nine-minute-long “Free Bird” made the cut. Many executives at the label cautioned against putting such a long song on an album because it could not be played on the radio. To fix this problem, the band created a separate recording of “Free Bird.” The radio version was just under five minutes, with the instrumental cut down to just one minute.
Impact on Fans
“Free Bird” worked perfectly as the closing track to the album, so it was always the last song the band played at concerts. After the tragic loss of Van Zant, his brother and bandmate John Van Zant became too emotional to sing it onstage. Instead, the band played the song as an instrumental, letting the crowd fill in the lyrics.
One of the elements that make “Free Bird” so special is that it means something different to everyone who listens to it. In a commentary on the song in 2010, John Van Zant explained that every listener feels a different connection to it. “This kid was telling me that they used it for their graduation song and not too long ago somebody told me that they used it at a funeral. And really it’s a love song. It’s one of the few that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ever had,” he said.
Once the lyrics cut out, the song is left entirely up to the listener. What emotions does the music bring out? How do you think the story ends? Everyone can have a different interpretation. There is no right answer. That’s the beauty of “Free Bird.”
Listen to “Free Bird” below and let us know your interpretation. (Comment below)
Photo: Doltyn Snedden / EBM Media PR