Why do people yell 'Play 'Freebird'' at concerts?

Members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd pose for the camera in 1973.
Members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd pose for the camera in 1973.
Gems/Redferns/Getty Images

The first recorded instance occurred at a concert in Atlanta, Ga., in 1976. Now, in 2011, you can still hear it from the back of a smoky bar, at a baseball game, in church, even at a presidential inaugural ball. Usually it's late in the evening. A lull has come over the audience as the guitar player tunes up between songs, the choir shifts between hymns or the new president is about to take the stage [source: Shapiro]. Then, the quiet is shattered by a voice at the back of the crowd. "Freebird!"

It's a scene that plays out across the country decades after the Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd released their song "Freebird" in 1973. (The band spelled the song title as one word.)

What makes people (some call them obnoxious morons, rednecks, hicks or worse) request "Freebird" at indie-rock concerts, churches, President Barack Obama's youth inauguration ball, baseball games, even classical performances -- all inappropriate places people report having heard "Freebird" hollered from the audience to musicians who aren't likely to have the song in their repertoire?

It could be because of the song itself -- a nine-minute piece in the studio version, but often 14-plus minutes when Skynyrd (as the band is known to fans) performs it live, as they do to this day. It starts out as an almost-ballad, a song about a man who's getting out of a relationship because he's "as free as a bird," and builds to a rousing battle between two lead guitars. It's an epic sound consistently named one of rock's greatest songs. On this Aol Radio list, it comes in at No. 7.

Or maybe yelling "Freebird" is considered a shout-out to the band itself, which has suffered many losses over the years, including the deaths of Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer on "Freebird," and other band members in a 1977 plane crash.

So, how did this tradition of hollering "Freebird" at any and all public venues -- appalling to some, a funny joke to others -- get started? We'll take a trip back to the 1970s and '80s on the next page to find out.