I just realized that yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the plane crash that killed three members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, and several members of their crew.
High school dances are mostly DJ-powered today, but back when I was in high school, local bands provided the music. “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird” were two of the most-played songs. Those and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (A music-store salesperson once joked with my husband about how every kid coming in to try out guitars played the same song: “Stairway to Freebird.”)
When Handel wrote “The Hallelujah Chorus,” he said the music so moved him that “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” While I could certainly never go quite that far with “Freebird,” I do get chills at the point where the song transitions from the first part’s slower ballad section to the hard-rocking section of the second part.
One of the funniest uses of “Freebird” in film is the marvelous scene near the end of Elizabethtown. As the cousin’s reunited old band is playing “Freebird” as a tribute at the memorial service for Orlando Bloom’s father, they attempt a rock-arena trick by sending a giant paper-mache bird soaring out into the hotel ballroom on a wire. The bird catches on fire from the overhead lights, setting off the sprinkler system and causing the guests to evacuate as the band plays on with a joyful triumph that makes the tribute all the more touching within the context of the movie. Watch it here on YouTube.
Ronnie Van Zant left behind two young daughters. In poking around the Internet for more background info on the band, I came across this poignant video in which his older daughter, Tammy, now an adult, sings a song she co-wrote with Robert White Johnson, titled “Freebird Child.”