The Real Meaning of Free Bird
October 20, 1977.
I made a decision to stay home from school that day.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it at some point in our lives. Once in a while,every kid just wants to stay home and take some time off to escape the reality of school. My diabolical plan consisted of an imaginary scratchy throat followed closely by fake rhythmic coughing. Mom bought into my little scheme and the rest of the day was all mine.
I can’t remember why staying home was so crucial that particular day; it was just one of those times where I just wanted to play hooky. It could have been one of a myriad of reasons. But maybe there was no reason at all. Perhaps it was just fate and meant to be.
I was in my Mom’s bedroom watching a small black and white television when all of a sudden a story came on one of the local news stations. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair CV-300 ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The plane crashed in a forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi. It was just three days after the release of their latest album Street Survivors and only five shows into their most successful headlining tour to date. The news was shocking, devastating, and surreal all at the same time.
Before taking flight, a couple of the band members expressed reservations about getting on the plane based on things they had seen in the days leading up to the crash. However, Ronnie Van Zant coaxed them onboard with what was reportedly his last words, “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” In other words, there were some things in life you have control over and there other things you don’t. Ronnie always had a way with words, even up until the very end.
There were many theories as to why the plane crashed, but in the end, the crew was held responsible for the accident report issued eight months later. The interesting backstory was the very same plane was inspected by members of Aerosmith’s flight crew for possible use earlier in the year but was rejected because it was felt neither the plane nor the crew was up to standard. There is no telling how the landscape of rock music would have changed had the plane crash not taken place. There is no need to waste any time speculating, because as we all know everything happens for a reason.
On June 16, 1977, just four months before the plane crash, I went to my first rock concert to see Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. I was a freshman in high school, but too young to drive at the time, so I went to the show with a couple of friends and chaperones. Every seat was filled in the old barn. It was a complete sellout. I was as far away from the stage as possible, but it didn’t matter on this evening. There was a noticeable and distinct buzz in the air. You could tell something special was about to take place.
It’s hard to believe it was 43 years ago. I don’t remember a lot from the evening, but the one and only thing which remains embedded in my mind was a flawless performance of Free Bird. There’s nothing in the world like hearing Ronnie Van Zant say “What song is it you wanna hear?” live and in person. When you hear those words, they stay with you forever. All these years later and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been there, even though at the time I had no real idea what I was truly witnessing.
Free Bird is probably without a doubt the most influential and inspirational classic rock song to ever be recorded. That is assuming of course, you’re not a die-hard Led Zeppelin and Stairway To Heaven fan, which is a whole debate within itself. But I digress. To truly understand how significant Free Bird is to rock-n-roll history you had to have experienced it live with the original band and a barefoot Ronnie Van Zant on stage.
Ronnie didn’t like shoes, they always bothered him. He’d kick them off whenever we were practicing or anywhere else he could. I think because it was just always so hot where we were in Florida. We noticed some people not wearing shoes on stage, like the singer from Three Dog Night and there were a few others. Shoes bothered Ronnie anyway. We all thought it looked cool.
Legend has it Ronnie said he didn’t wear shoes because he “liked to feel the stage burn,” and on that summer night at the Nassau Coliseum, it couldn’t have been any hotter. Free Bird was melodic, meaningful, powerful, and inspiring all within its 14+ glorious minutes. How did the song become so iconic? Why does it remain relevant to this day to so many people? The answers and insight into those questions reside in the history of how the song was born and nurtured over many years.
The song was initially written as a simple ballad behind the syrupy slide guitar of Gary Rossington. Allen Collins, the man who would end up orchestrating the infamous over-dubbed guitar solo on the back end of the song, actually had been working on the song for two years. Ronnie thought at first the song “had too many chords to write lyrics for,” but one evening the band all of a sudden became inspired and finished the song in just a couple of minutes. 
The lyrics to Free Bird have always meant so many different things to so many people. Everyone has their own interpretation. On its surface, the song seemed to be about a man merely telling his woman he had to leave home and go out on the road, perhaps to find himself and start another life. However, if you read the opening line of the song you could also say that particular lyric was Ronnie’s unintentional epitaph.
The fact of the matter was Ronnie had a little bit of help writing the lyrics. Allen actually got the lyric from his then-girlfriend, who after a fight one day asked him “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Then one evening, Ronnie finally finished what would eventually become rock history when he followed up Allen’s line with the immortal, “For I must be traveling on, now ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”
The subject in the song, let’s call it Ronnie for all intents and purposes, knew he had to go somewhere for some reason, but we never learned as to why. It was almost as if Ronnie knew he had another purpose and there a was a higher power steering him through life. My thought was always that Ronnie didn’t really want to leave at all and the situation was pre-planned from the outset for reasons we will never know.
According to former bandmate Artimus Pyle and family members, Ronnie Van Zant frequently discussed his mortality. Pyle recalls a moment when Lynyrd Skynyrd was in Japan: “Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he would never live to see thirty and that he would go out with his boots on, in other words, on the road. I said, ‘Ronnie, don’t talk like that,’ but the man knew his destiny.”
Van Zant’s father, Lacy Van Zant, said, “He said to me many times, ‘Daddy, I’ll never be 30 years old.’ I said, ‘Why are you talking this junk?’ and he said, ‘Daddy, that’s my limit.” Van Zant’s father later noted that “God was a jealous god. Taking him for reasons I don’t know.” Van Zant was 29 years old at the time of his death.
Ronnie was very prophetic. But what is open for debate is if the events of the day were driven by his destiny or orchestrated by fate. There are many interpretations of the song, most of which make sense, so the following is my personal take on it.
In the lyrics to Free Bird, there was evidence in Ronnie’s own words which hint that he knew his time was coming to an end and he had to fulfill his destiny when he sang, “For I must be travelin’ on now. There’s too many places I got to see.” Furthermore, there was also an indication in the song his fate was sealed, and he had no control over the events about to unfold. In another verse he lamented, “Though the feeling I can’t change, but please don’t take it so badly ‘cause the Lord knows I’m to blame.”
Maybe the only way for Ronnie to find the missing pieces to his puzzle and complete his final picture was to go on the road and follow a path explicitly paved for him. In other words, fate directed him towards his destiny and purpose in life. Even though he was physically taken from us at a very young age, his spiritual journey was far from over, and he knew it before any of us ever did.
What had started as either a simple love song or a spiritual calling of some sort eventually became a magnum opus with an extended triple-guitar jam session which added up to over 11 minutes on Skynyrd’s first album Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd. Being too long for radio, MCA released a seven inch single of the song in November 1974. It lasted only 4:18 but was edited further down to 3:31 for radio airplay, getting as high as 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. Free Bird represented Skynyrd’s second top 40 hit of that year, but behind the scene it started to take on a whole new life during their live performances which would make it one of the most iconic songs of its time. 
The extended jam at the end of the song transformed it from a ballad to a southern rock anthem. The jam to end all jams came about when Skynyrd started playing clubs. The band needed to play something at the end of the show to give Ronnie a break, so Rossington and Collins came up with a chord progression to solo over. During live shows, Rossington always starts the song with a series of “chirps” on his guitar which initially came from the great Duane Allman. It was a subtle tribute to Allman’s own bird chirps at the end of another rock classic, Layla, as performed by Derek and the Dominos.
The first five minutes of the live Free Bird consists of the original version of the song followed by a quick transition into the aforementioned jam session after Ronnie sang, “Lord I can’t change. Won’t you fly high free bird, yeah.” That was the moment Ronnie would toss the microphone stand off the stage into the waiting arms of a trusted roadie and the band would come to the forefront of the stage and launch into a triple guitar assault for the ages.
It wasn’t just a cacophony of instruments making random noise, but an orchestration of melody and harmony with intricate and precise guitar parts played in a specific sequence which elevated the energy level the longer the song went on. For a song of such magnitude, the end could not be a few seconds consisting of a single note, a sequence of riffs, or an unimaginative fade out. The ending to any live version of Free Bird always lasted almost two minutes which enabled anyone listening or playing the song to glide in for a safe landing. After all, aren’t we all traveling on through life with many more places we all got to see?
On the night I saw Skynyrd, right before the end of the song, the Nassau Coliseum turned on every light in the venue. I’m not sure if it was done for every concert, but it definitely added to the overall experience. The Nassau Coliseum went from pitch dark to what seemed like full daylight in an instant. The band didn’t miss a beat and continued to play. One thing was sure, even if Ronnie had shoes on stage that night the heat would have burned through his soles.
With the lights turned up, the focus wasn’t on the band on the stage, but the 16,000 plus fans standing on their feet, jumping up and down. It didn’t matter if you were on the floor in the front row or sitting in section 336 of the upper bowl in the last row. It was Skynyrd’s way of telling their fans they not only appreciated their support but without them, there would be no reason to make music at all. In other words, the statement they were making was “We are just musicians, you are the show.”
After a couple of minutes, the lights went out again, and Free Bird came to an end. The band brought the crowd in for a safe landing, but the energy which permeated the building was begging the band to taxi down the runway and take off again almost immediately. When the lights came back on for a final time, there were instantaneous and simultaneous feelings of disappointment and exhilaration. There was a sudden disappointment because the song had to come to an end, however, at the very same time, it was masked by an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration from being part of our something both historic and extraordinary.
The very next day was final exams at Massapequa High School. I wore my Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tee-shirt proudly. It was jet black with a simple skull and crossbones on the front, and a list of tour stops on the back. I was never popular in high school but had a few close friends. However, on that day there were some kids who stopped and asked me about the concert. All of a sudden I was relevant and felt important. For at least one day I was “one of those cool kids” for a change. It was only a t-shirt, but I wore it like a badge of honor.
We all have those moments in life we will never forget in a million years. Those memories fade over time, but the parts of those moments which stay with us do so for a reason. It’s because they are the moments which are the most important. There is a lot which has been forgotten from that day. I can’t remember the exam I took or the grade I received, but I can still envision the tee-shirt and the feelings of belonging and acceptance which came along with it. It’s one of those small moments which will stay with me forever.
Fly on proud bird, you’re free at last.
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: Five questions with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington” by Zeke Jennings from MLive.com July 12, 2012
: Comment from Gary Rossington in an interview with Blender magazine. Date of article unknown.
: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rosssinton shares the Story Behind “Free Bird”, posted 11/15/20 by Acoustic Nation at Guitar World.
: Free Bird. (2008, October 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:48, January 24, 2015,