If you go to enough concerts in the U.S., eventually you will hear it. It will probably be towards the end of the night, as the band is winding up, maybe trying to decide what to play for their final song. And then someone will yell out, “Play Freebird!”
The response from the other concert-goers will vary. Some may join in, others may snicker, and still others may sigh at hearing the overused trope. But what does “Play Freebird!” mean?
“Freebird” is a 1973 song by southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are probably best-known for their anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Freebird” hit the top 40, and has been voted as having one of the best guitar solos of all time.
The phrase’s first use, understandably, was to request the song. On a 1976 Lynyrd Skynyrd live recording, the lead singer asks the audience what song they want to hear, and they shout back, “Freebird!” (the band obliges).
Today, however, “Play Freebird!” is yelled at bands who almost certainly don’t have “Freebird” in their repertoire, with no intention that the band treat the exclamation as a request.
Investigations from both the Wall Street Journal and How Stuff Works have failed to figure out exactly how the phrase made this transition, but the Wall Street Journal gives some credit for this change to a Chicago radio personality:
Kevin Matthews is a Chicago radio personality who has exhorted his fans — the KevHeads — to yell “Freebird” for years, and claims to have originated the tradition in the late 1980s, when he says he hit upon it as a way to torment Florence Henderson of “Brady Bunch” fame, who was giving a concert. He figured somebody should yell something at her “to break up the monotony.” The longtime Skynyrd fan settled on “Freebird,” saying the epic song “just popped into my head.”
The Journal also cites Chicago Tribune music writer Greg Kot, who said the phrase took hold in the ’80s, and presumably gained a more negative connotation, among indie-rock fans “having their sneer at mainstream classic rock.”
So yelling “Play Freebird” at a concert has become something of a heckle or a joke, sometimes meant to imply that the performer is a hack, sometimes simply intended to be ironic and get a chuckle.
“The reasons I used to yell it pretty much all revolve around irritating/mocking the performer,” wrote Glorious Noise’s Jeff Sabatini.
“I have done it … because it’s so unexpected and crazy,” commenter Kimberly Mays told Glorious Noise for the same article.
The exclamation has clearly grown beyond its initial roots. It was yelled at President Obama’s Inaugural Youth Ball (prompting MTV to respond, “Yelling “Free Bird” at a gig has never been funny. Ever. Until last night.”), and even has its own Facebook page (Keep Yelling Freebird).
And although most people seem to agree that it’s unfunny (comic Bill Hicks called it “the mantra of the moron” – WSJ), overused (“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a show where it hasn’t happened,” according to musician Bill Davis – WSJ), and way past its sell-by date (Glorious Noise described it as “the most annoying aspect of live performance and one that never dies”), the phenomenon lives on at concerts and public venues throughout the U.S.
Check out the song that started it all:
What are your favorite oddities in U.S. culture? Leave a comment and let us know!