Few songs have defined a band or a genre like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. While it wasn’t their biggest hit chart-wise — Sweet Home Alabama and That Smell both outsold it — it became their passport to immortality and the unofficial anthem of the Southern rock nation.
Allen Collins, who wrote the song, first showed it to Ronnie Van Zant in 1973. He scoffed at it, saying “it has too many words.” But he eventually accepted it and turned it into one of the most iconic songs in the history of classic rock.
The song is about freedom and individualism, letting go of the past and moving forward. It’s also about love and losing touch with someone you care about. The narrator of the song is leaving for good, and while part of them wishes they could stay and find happiness with that person, the truth is they can’t. The line, “This bird you cannot change” is a metaphor for that.
It’s become a rock and roll tradition for people to yell, “Play Free Bird!” at concerts to request the famous song. While some think the tradition was started by radio personality Kevin Matthews, who claimed he invented it to heckle bad singers at bar gigs in the 1980s, it likely just happened organically. The tradition has now reached a point where fans will shout “Free Bird!” for any song, regardless of the performer or style of music. It’s even a cliche in movies, where audiences will yell out the phrase when their favorite songs aren’t being played.