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The Real Story Behind “Freebird”

It all began just after Christmas, 1946, in a state mental hospital in Los Angeles. Malcolm J. Hunsacker, a shoe salesman from Pacoima, had been involuntarily committed three years earlier because of a debilitating fascination with ladies’ feet. His career in shoe sales dashed, Hunsacker whiled away his time in the hospital playing the harmonica and listening to jazz records, unsure of what his future held.

One afternoon Hunsacker returned to his room after lunch, and discovered a new roommate. Charlie “Bird” Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, had suffered a nervous breakdown and was being confined to the hospital for treatment. The two men became friends, and it is believed that Hunsacker was instrumental (pun intended) in Parker’s recovery.

Not much is known of what became of Hunsacker after Parker left the hospital in January of 1947, but he managed to leave behind one important story that has spawned one of the most widely-repeated phrases at modern live music performances.

According to hospital staff members who witnessed the event, it went something like this:

Parker and Hunsacker were seated side by side on the veranda one afternoon, looking out across the Pacific Ocean toward Catalina Island, barely visible through the coastal mist. Parker was bottoming out in his depression, and Hunsacker had become the only person he would talk to at the hospital. On this particular afternoon, Parker was trying to describe to his roommate his sense of being constrained, of feeling wrapped up in chains of self-loathing and doubt about his own talent. He was ready to give up the sax altogether, because the weight of the world on his shoulders was crushing his musical creativity.

Hunsacker listened patiently and intently, according to the hospital staff, and when Parker seemed to have finished unloading his psyche, the twisted shoe salesman put his hand on Parker’s arm, and leaned over so he could say softly into the jazzman’s ear, “Play free, Bird. Just play free.”

Parker’s well-documented recovery likely began from that simple springboard, a suggestion to just let the music lift him above all the corporeal noise and pain. His status as a jazz legend was cemented already, and Hunsacker’s advice that day probably saved one of the century’s most important musical icons from certain self-destruction.

Fans at Parker’s shows in New York, Chicago and Kansas City adopted the phrase, and began yelling it at him while he played, exhorting the sax master to new heights. “Play FREE, Bird!” they’d yell. “Play free!”

Parker continued to thrill audiences right up until his tragic death in 1955, and the phrase “play free, Bird” was lost to history.

But somewhere along the line, in the dark, murky world of rock and roll in the early 1970’s, the expression was resurrected by fans of a greasy, pot-smoking band of Southern hippies called Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Reportedly, the band’s name was copped from a one-armed Cajun moss farmer whose parents were placed under a spell by a swamp witch, who rendered them incapable of using vowels. The story has never been verified, however.)

The band was gaining popularity through incessant touring, and their big, show-closing number, “Freebird,” became their anthem. American youth, disenfranchised and deeply distrustful of the oppressive authority sweeping the country under Nixon, identified with the song and its yearning lyrics of freedom and restlessness. They took to calling the song’s name during Skynyrd shows, begging the band to play the song. None of them knew, of course, that they were yelling Hunsacker’s suggestion at the band, and they were oblivious to its meaning or source.

But the guys in Lynyrd Skynyrd knew. And they hated it. Soon, “Freebird” eclipsed the rest of the band’s material, and it became all the audiences wanted to hear. Despondent and frustrated, the band eventually chartered a small plane and crashed it into a swamp, killing most of its members.

So there you have it. Most working musicians across the country have heard the legend of Malcolm J. Hunsacker and his unlikely influence on one of jazz’s most beloved legends. But it’s still mostly unknown among the rank and file, those who go out to enjoy live music.

Ignorant chuckle-heads, not caring how stupid it makes them look, still call out “Freebird!” to any band, thus perpetuating the erroneous idea that it’s the Skynyrd song they’re talking about. You might as well be yelling, “I’m a moron!” So please think twice, my thick-skulled friends, before you haul out that hoary old cliché at the next show. Why don’t you yell something more original and fresh, like, “You’re all that and a bag of chips!” Seriously. The “Freebird” thing has been done to death. It’s beyond eye-rolling stale. It can actually damage your reputation, and lower your standing among your peers.

And, more importantly, you might think you’re referencing the Skynyrd song, but you’re actually disrespecting Charlie Parker, a giant in the jazz pantheon.

Now git!

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  1. Well done Bob. But I always thought that it was iconic steel guitarist, Jerry BYRD, that Hunsacker talked to that day; hence the irony in the mind-numbing lap steel intro in “Freebird.” You know…waaaaaa waaaaaaa waa waa waaaaaaa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa waa waaaaa…

    Regardless, I will rest well tonight knowing that you have thrust your pen through the hearts of live music hecklers everywhere.

    Thank you.

  2. When people used to yell that at my shows I would immediately launch into “Una ponona buncaaa aa aaa, I’m just free as a bird and no one can take my freedom awayyyyy”. Not just that line, but the whole damn 2 1/2 minute song. Amazing how good they were at finding the door.

  3. I happen to like the Free Bird. And as an alcoholic, I am very aware that in the bars, I am more important than the band. The bands job is to make me want to drink and to play just loud enough to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. Economically speaking, the more I drink, the more the bar owner makes and if the bar owner makes money, then the band gets to play there another night. So, let’s say I’m in the bar tying one on, the bands doing their thing playing songs from the radio when out of nowhere the singer asks if we, the drinkers, would like “to hear the band play an original song?” This is my favorite time to start yelling “Free Bird, Free Bird, Free Bird!!!” Since I pay the bills around this place, I usually get my way. And, if the band still can’t seem to shake the need to be “artistic” and attempts yet again to play and original I will not hesitate to holler out a request for another one of my favorites, “Lady” by Styx. The high parts in that song will thrash a band and make them think twice before trying to play an original on my watch. I know what some you are saying, “oh, he’s that guy.” As a matter of fact, I am.

  4. Hic , c , c , CUP !

  5. Wow, how about a fact checker before you start writing? 1)Lynyrd Skynyrd got its name from a high school gym teacher. 2) The band’s plane crash killed three people – Ronnie Van Zant (brother of Little Stevie, who plays w/Springsteen) and a brother/sister, Steve and Cassie Gaines, if memory serves me correctly. The rest of the band came back as the short-lived Rossington Collins band, and would perform Free Bird as an encore, instrumental only. It was one of the most moving songs, bringing visions of Van Zant set “free as a bird” in death. Sure, Charlie Parker is great, and it’s a nice story of how the phrase began, but don’t run a pen through the heart of a great song just because you don’t understand it. Apparently you’re not a southern rock fan, but if you listened to something other than what’s on the radio – old Skynyrd – you might realize why I still have their “albums.”

  6. Thanks for reading, and for commenting, old hippie chick. I should probably point out that this is a humor column, not a straight news report. You’re making a LOT of assumptions with your comments, and all I can say is this: just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s true. Now git!

  7. uuhhh, uuhhh, like old hippie chicks smell bad, uhhhhh

  8. C’mon. We don’t smell at all. Too many things up our noses during those forgotten years.

  9. Bob,
    I hope you realize what you have done with this week’s column.
    I had been planning on my retirement income being based on Freebird. I was gonna open a nightclub called Freebird. I was going to sell a hand-crafted IPA called Freebird. I was negotiating with a distiller in Kentucky to create a raucous and obnoxious whiskey aptly named Freebird to accompany the Freebird cola that Shasta had agreed to produce.
    I was gonna front a house band called Freebird and we were gonna play the only song anyone needs to hear-EVER. That’s right, four-45 minutes sets of Freebird. There was to be no artistic license taken when the song was performed-I was gonna play it just like it sounds on the radio: over and over and over and over… and Freebird would of course be played in between sets through the PA (it goes without saying the jukebox would have had but one song on it as well). Mondays were gonna be Freebird karaoke. On Tuesdays I was gonna have Freebird happy hour. I was gonna have Freebird lunch specials featuring Freebird burgers with Freebird fries. I was gonna offer Freebird handicap parking. I was gonna have a witty motto above the door: “Free As a Bird Now”. On Thanksgiving I was gonna celebrate Freebird day by giving away… Freebirds. On Christmas I was gonna set up a Freebird tree next to the Freebird stage and sing Freebird carols.
    But now that you have exposed this white trash masterpiece and destroyed my retirement dreams, I have no alternative but to cash out my 401k and buy scratch tickets. I figure I can buy plenty of chances with $1137.86

  10. Hmmm. Snow gettin’ a little deep up there in Les Mizzeroola, Barb? I mean Bob?

  11. Clarence (Lumpy) Worly? I was warned about you… Stay away from my Joe Montana Bobble Head!