“Free Bird”

By: Shneur Agronin  |  July 3, 2024

By Shneur Agronin, Arts & Culture Editor 

I say this with the awareness that my words, among a specific crowd, will not fall upon welcome ears: the definitive era of rock ’n’ roll, when the genre reached its potential, began in the 1970s. The 70s included the most active years of renowned rock bands Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Queen, the Eagles, and AC/DC. Most relevant to this article, Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced, “Len-nerd Skinerd”) also joined this golden age of rock. This article won’t focus on the band’s history or biographically detail its members’ lives – that would require an article of its own – but instead, will feature the song considered by many to be the greatest rock song of all time. With simple lyrics, a beautiful and somber message, and an electrifying guitar solo which takes up half the song’s glorious nine minutes (during concerts, the solo itself often lasted 8-10 minutes and beyond!), “Free Bird” is one of those songs which, to my ears, expresses a profoundly inspiring charge to find the resilience and courage necessary to live a meaningful life. 

Many of you, especially if you’re a member of Generation Z like me, have never heard of “Free Bird.” Instead, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song which most classic rock playlists feature first is “Sweet Home Alabama,” whose charming twang and smooth rhythm greatly enhance any southbound road trip (try it!). Only by scrolling a bit farther than I normally do while browsing albums did I come across “Free Bird.” Happening upon the song, I felt almost anticipatorily overwhelmed noticing its nine-minute length. Nevertheless, I pressed play and quickly began wishing I’d listened to it sooner. While “Sweet Home Alabama” certainly has a special place in my heart, it is “Free Bird” which has carried me through some of my most difficult experiences. Although “Free Bird” clearly describes a specific situation (the end of a relationship), I apply its message to all challenging areas of life. 

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

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

The protagonist doubts how fulfilled he feels in his current relationship. His primary struggle lies in that which he has yet to do or experience. Not prepared for the commitment of a long-term relationship or marriage and eager still to see the rest of the world unburdened by a family, he decides to begin the next chapter of his life on his own. While he may still love his girlfriend, his longing to see the world and live life to the fullest consumes the lion’s share of his headspace, and remaining in the relationship “just couldn’t be the same,” despite his love for her. 

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 the Lord knows I’m to blame

As he leaves, he reassures his girlfriend with a reminder that, while it lasted, their relationship was true, loving, and a positive experience despite his current misgivings. Unable to suppress his yearning for adventure and fulfillment or allow it to coexist peacefully with his love, he expresses guilt and attempts to console his girlfriend by reminding her that she’s done nothing wrong. The journey of life rarely follows a straight path, and along its many twists and turns we may lose friends and loved ones. Not pushed away nor abused, the protagonist ends the relationship, not to escape, but to explore, and for this reason, he bears the weight of causing the girl he loves so much pain.  

And the bird you cannot change

And this bird you cannot change

The Lord knows I can’t change

Lord, help me, I can’t change

Lord, I can’t change

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah

Finally, after breaking up with his girlfriend and acknowledging his guilt, the protagonist flies free. As a bird glides through the air far above the happenings on land, the protagonist allows himself to move on and free his mind of the worries which plagued him previously. He accepts his decision and leaves the past behind him. We can walk or run backward, but set aloft by the wings of independence and adventure, the protagonist, like a bird, can only fly forward.

Up until this point in the song, a gentle and consistent rhythm accompanies the lyrics. You can feel the protagonist’s heavy heart, the choke in his throat, as he breaks up with his girlfriend, wishing that their love would have had a happier ending. Then, as the protagonist orders himself to fly high and move on, the song plunges its listeners into a frenzy of ferociously shredded chords. Beyond this point, there are no more words, no more verbal reassurances, and most critically: no rumination or fixation on the past. Previously, the protagonist tried to explain and rationalize his decision to break up with his girlfriend and cope with the guilt resulting from it. After all, a breakup is no simple matter, and feelings should never be bottled up and left unacknowledged. But, after expressing what he needed to express, the time to fly arrives. 

As Ronnie Van Zant, lead vocalist and founder of Lynyrd Skynyrd, stretches out the last word of “Free Bird” in his stirring voice, guitarists Allen Collins and Steve Gaines begin the chaotic guitar solo, an absolutely hectic but catchy masterpiece full of sharp turns, highs and lows, and triply-overlapping melodies. As they do so, a new theme emerges. Life is not about wallowing and sinking into the quicksand of the past. Acknowledge your pain, let yourself mourn, but sooner rather than later, you must spread your wings and take a leap of faith into the future’s great and exciting unknown. Life will be as unpredictable as the guitar solo, and while problem-solving is important, there will be times when learning how to rise above your pain and ride the wave of life takes precedence. We are all as free as birds to soar into the horizon and live our lives actively while knowing that, sometimes, instead of trying to look back and figure everything out, all we need to do is just let the winds take us wherever they blow us. You might end up somewhere you didn’t expect or even want to be, but just keep on flying and don’t fight it. You’ll get there, eventually. 

On October 19, 1977, the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd played their last concert, closing the show with a 14-minute long rendition of “Free Bird.” The next day, Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines (Steve’s sister), died in a plane crash, marking the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s mainstream popularity and undeniable dominance in the world of rock ’n’ roll. Although I share little in common with Van Zant or any other members of the band (aside from our mutual Floridian origins), the beauty of “Free Bird” is that neither you nor I need to know the artist or understand the song’s origins. All you need to do is press play and listen, thinking of the soothing and invigorating “Free Bird” as a microcosm of life, and letting yourself fly above it all.  Don’t let the past hold you down. Bury the dead and cry your tears, but don’t let yourself fall into the grave too. There’s a beautiful world out there, and all you need to do is rock on and see it for yourself. 

So, the next time the past beckons and you feel like sinking into a sea of unchangeable regrets, put on some headphones and listen to “Free Bird.” It’ll remind you that the only way to move is forward, and that no matter what, we’re all just a bunch of free birds guided by the unpredictable winds of life. 

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah!

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons