Last Saturday night, I was sitting in a coffee shop listening to
a jazz duo play bebop, nursing my hot chocolate as if it were the best cup of java in a noir movie. They were really good, a couple of kids who go to the great jazz program thirty miles up the road. But then I felt the urge. I felt the longing for a cigarette lighter, fully lit, waving in the air. I felt the need to wave that lighter and request a song. Yes, I had that strong soul urge to inappropriately ask them to play the song "Free Bird".
In life, there are really too kinds of people, people who appreciate "Free Bird" and people who did not grow up in the south. This old Lyrnyrd Skynrd chestnut, particularly in its album-length pompous full majesty, sends a certain thrill of discovery and well-being through all its true adherents. Sometimes, when we are in church, and we are belting out a hymn from the Unitarian Universalist hymn books (all of whose hymns, by the way, seem to focus lyrically on "gee, this is a really awesome world, maybe it'd be cool if we all got along", in more or less flowery language), I wonder if we could not get just as much soul-enrichment if we belted out, in unison, with a drawl:
"If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?
'Cause I must be travelling on now, there's too many
places I gotta see".
I know that this lyric is not quite as meaningful as "I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free" or that song that likens some experience or other to "a rose in the wintertime" (which was,when I lived in Southern CA, a much less profound concept that I am sure that hymnist was imagining over in New England). But it's all a matter of good intentions. It's kind of like that effort to make "Born to Run" the New Jersey state song
some years ago. I have this mental image of first graders standing, with the hands over their heart, facing the New Jersey flag and singing "and strap your hands 'cross my engines!".
I must hasten to point out that I am not a "big" fan of southern rock or country rock, as my own tastes in those 70s southern rock days ran more to art and progressive rock. It's true that I had an early teenage Black Oak Arkansas fondness, but who could resist any band of self-taught musicians who sold millions of records with minimal musical skills and featured 2 minute scrub-board solos at their concerts? When I do my album of covers, then I'll certainly include a Black Oak Arkansas song in the mix. Now it's true that on any given Sunday drive, it's entirely possible to find me singing Pure Prairie League's "Amie", because "Amie" reminds me of being a teenager so much, and yet when I was a teenager, I don't think that the problem was "fallin' in and out of love with you" so much as "fallin' in love with you but romantically I don't exist for you", which would be much harder to put to a melody.
Still and all, though, I'm not the kind of man who listens to "Whippin' Post" and says "Dickie Betts--whutta guitarist!" or who went to Molly Hatchet concerts. But "Free Bird" is not limited to its narrow genre. "Free Bird" is not constrained by its lyrical road-song triteness.
That soaring guitar and twangy vocal just make my heart soar.
I see "Free Bird" as the "King of the Road" for my generation. You know, the song everyone likes although for virtually no reason. I know it's illogical, but this isn't Star Trek, and I"m not a Vulcan. But no matter what musical experience I attend, I frequently wonder if it wouldn't be enlivened by "Free Bird".
This Christmas, I hope we get carollers--but I want them to sing:
"and this bird you cannot change...and this bird you cannot chayeyeahyeahyeah--ange....oh no, I can't change.....".
Silly? Yes. Trite? Maybe. But what can I say. It's "Free Bird".