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 stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change, oh, oh, oh, oh.
– Written by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant (1974), recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
For many of us (I’m certain) the listen-by date on this song expired in the early 1980s. Then it became a mocking joke that at any performer’s concert a wise guy would yell out “Play Freebird!” But the theme I was thinking about was the differences in attitudes between twenty-somethings in the late sixties and seventies and today and it came to mind as representative of a sense of freedom and self-determination that was big in music in those olden times. I listened to the song several times and in several versions and damn if it didn’t make me feel great. If you aren’t moderately head-banging the guitar solo then check your pulse because it might be bad news.
The song was kicking around for a while before it took shape because Ronnie Van Zant was troubled by the 6 chords that made up each verse (G-D-Em-F-C-D). Then inspiration came from an argument between Collins and a girlfriend where she asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Or at least, that’s the story that gets repeated. The other story is that a roadie was working for them for a year named Billy Powell. They did a gig at a school and a piano was sitting on the back of the stage. Powell played an intro he had developed for Freebird and the shocked band hired him as keyboardist right there. An early recording from Muscle Shoals sessions (see video below) includes the piano intro, but the Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd version used an organ.
The producer for the album is listed as Roosevelt Gook. The producer’s real name is Alan Peter Kuperschmidt but everyone knew him as Al. Al Kooper. Kooper has played on hundreds of records, including ones by The Rolling Stones, B. B. King, The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Alice Cooper, and Cream. He was a founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears (leaving after their first album) and recorded the boomer lost classic album Bloomfield-Kooper-Stills Super Session. On that album, Kooper played piano, organ, ondioline (a keyboard instrument), and 6 and 12-string guitars AND sang. Digressing, the Super Session project was intended to be completed in 2 studio days. On the first day Kooper, Bloomfield (of the Electric Flag), and the other session players recorded instrumental jams. But Bloomfield didn’t show up for the second day in the studio and couldn’t be found. Kooper called Stephen Stills, who was in the deteriorating Buffalo Springfield, and asked him to sit in. The second half of the album is Kooper, Stills and the session players without Bloomfield. To digress one more degree, Al Kooper was a teenage studio guitarist and an early job was playing behind a group from New Jersey called the Royal Teens on a 1957 song Short Shorts (“Who loves short shorts… We love short shorts.”) That song was written by Royal Teen Bob Gaudio, who later played behind the Four Seasons and wrote many of their biggest hits.
Southern rock was big on promoting a sense of freedom from the everyday things that tied people down like relationships (gulp) and employment. The Marshall Tucker Band in “Heard it in a Love Song” wrote:
I ain’t never been with a woman long enough, for my boots to get old.
We’ve been together so long now they both need resoled.
If I ever settle down you’d be my kind
and it’s a good time for me to head on down the line.
The Allman Brother’s Band in “Ramblin’ Man” wrote:
Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man,
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.
And when it’s time for leavin’,
I hope you’ll understand,
That I was born a ramblin’ man.
Now, admittedly those are all Southern Rock songs about not being tied down by relationships but I’d argue that these are expressions of a “freedom to act” that are embedded in the rock staple of the love song. The contrast is to the modern world where youngsters are consumed by their college choices before they graduate elementary school and unquestioningly become cogs in the wheels of the machines that feed economic inequality in the United States.
This train of thinking started with two events. The first was an interview I did at work for a position where the business-like young lady made a comment about Social Security not being there for her generation. I’ve heard this from others, mostly millennials. The second was the way that the “youth” demographic showed up to elect Barack Obama but then failed to support the party that would have supported his vision for change, especially in the 2014 midterm elections. Voters ages 18-29 made up 13% of the national electorate in 2014 compared to 19% in 2012, and tended to be more Republican. So it leads me to think that the past couple of decades have somehow forged a generation more likely to feel crushed by the powers that be instead of being willing to confront those powers and fight for change.
John Mayer puts a fine point on this in the song, Waiting for the World to Change.
Now if we had the power,
To bring our neighbors home from war,
They would have never missed a Christmas,
No more ribbons on their door.
And when you trust your television,
What you get is what you got,
Cause when they own the information, oh,
They can bend it all they want.
Lorde writes in Tennis Court,
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear.
Et cetera. So I would tell that interviewee that you don’t have to wait for them to give you your Social Security dollars, it’s part of the fabric of our society and if they try to take it from you then fight for all you are worth. Clean house of the venal bums who engineer tax breaks for billionaires while denying an increase in the minimum wage. Or as FDR said in a 1938 Fireside Chat, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you – using his stockholders’ money to pay the postage for his personal opinions — tell you that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”
Don’t jump on the bandwagon with “my vote doesn’t matter.” Is it so hard to understanding that every vote on the losing side of an election matters as a counterbalance to assumptions about mandates, as solidarity, and as a virtual fuel that encourages and sustains those fighting for change?
My generation was lucky. We had protest songs, we had Gil Scott-Heron.
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised
Will not be televised, will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run brothers
The revolution will be live