Frontman Johnny Van Zant discussed this song in a track-by-track commentary to promote the band's 2010 CD/DVD Live From Freedom Hall. He said: "For years Skynyrd has always closed the show with that song and the song has different meanings for different people. 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, its one of the few that Lynyrd Skynyrd's ever had. It's about a guy and a girl. Of course at the end it was dedicated to Duane Allman from the band Allman Brothers because it goes into the guitar part. If you can get through that one you've had a good night at a Skynyrd show."
This song began as a ballad without the guitar solos at the end, and Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded it that way for the first time in 1972. Guitarist Allen Collins had been working on the song on and off for the previous 2 years. At the time of recording, the song was only 7 1/2 minutes long, but throughout the next year, Collins continued to refine the song until it was recorded for the final cut of Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd in 1973.
Collins wrote the music long before Ronnie Van Zant came up with lyrics for it. Van Zant finally got inspired one night and had Collins and Gary Rossington play it over and over until he wrote the words. (thanks, Aaron - Twin Cities, MN)
The lyrics are about a man explaining to a girl why he can't settle down and make a commitment. The opening verse, "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" was inspired by Allen Collins' girlfriend Kathy, who had asked him this very question during a fight. (thanks, Chris - Philly, PA)
Allman Brothers Band guitarist Duane Allman died around the same time this was released. Skynyrd sometimes dedicated it to Allman at concerts, but it was written long before his death. The double guitar solo at the end is the same style as many early Allman Brothers songs on which Duane played.
Skynyrd has played this only as an instrumental since the 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. His brother, Johnny, took his place. For a while, he wouldn't sing it - the band played it as an instrumental and the crowd would sing the words.
The band's record company did not want this on the album. They thought it was too long and that no radio station would play it. Even the band never thought this was going to be a hit.
This is a classic rock anthem. Shouting it out as a request at concerts has become a Rock And Roll joke, and every now and then a musician will actually play it. The 2007 Mitch Myers book The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling
explores this subject in a work of fiction about the first person ever to shout "Free Bird" at a concert.
In 1976, a live version was released from the One More For the Road live album. It went to #38.
Skynyrd always plays this as the last song at their shows.
In the US, this wasn't released as a single until a year after the album came out. By that time, "Sweet Home Alabama
" had already been released, and the single version of "Free Bird" was edited down. The long version from the album has always been more popular.
The band Will To Power scored a minor hit in 1988 with a medley of this and Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way
Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd was Lynyrd Skynyrd's first album. They gave it the title because they knew people would not be able to pronounce their name.
Gene Odom, who was Lynyrd Skynyrd's security manager, explained in his book Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering The Free Birds Of Southern Rock
, that this song came about when Allen Collins' wife asked him the question, "If I leave here tomorrow would you still remember me." (thanks, Jeanette - McGrady, NC)
Skynyrd's 1991 boxed set contains a demo version of this.
Ronnie Van Zant thought at first that this song "Had too many chords to write lyrics for," Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington commented in an interview with Blender magazine, "But after a few months, we were sitting around, and he asked Allen to play those chords again. 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 leavin' town, time to move on. Al put the organ on the front, which was a very good idea. He also helped me get the sound of the delayed slide guitar that I play - it's actually me playing the same thing twice, recording one on top of the other, so it sounds kind of slurry, echoey." (thanks, John Smith - Southington, CT)
This is used as the encore song in the video game Guitar Hero II. (thanks, Patrick - Albany, NY)
While the lyrics contain the phrase "free as a bird," the title itself ("Free Bird") is used just once, right before the guitar solos begin: "Won't you fly high, free bird." (thanks, James - Tracy, CA)