Ophelia

Album: Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1975)
Charted: 62
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Songfacts®:

  • In this song The Band drummer Levon Helm sings about a woman named Ophelia who has skipped town. We know she left in a hurry and he would love to have her come back ("The old neighborhood just ain't the same"), but we really have no idea who she is what her relationship is with the singer.

    The song was written by the group's guitarist Robbie Robertson, and the ambiguity was intentional. "I was always fascinated by that girl's name," he told Melody Maker in 1976. "I always like the mystery factor. I may be writing a song and the music may imply a certain lyric, or vice versa. It's not that deliberate, or an intellectual exercise. It just comes out naturally."
  • The most famous Ophelia is a character in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. She is caught between her love for Hamlet and the wishes of her father, Polonius, who uses her to spy on Hamlet. She feels she has no control of her life and descends into madness, eventually drowning after falling out of a tree into a brook.

    The character in this song could certainly be an analog to Shakespeare's Ophelia, possibly driven mad by a lover.
  • A modest hit for The Band, this is a number they played at many of their shows, including their famous final show in 1976 that provided footage for the concert film The Last Waltz. In the film, we see Levon Helm belting it out from behind his drum kit.
  • This Ophelia has three syllables: "Oh-Feel-Ya," giving it a rootsy sound. The more mannered pronunciation is "Oh-Feel-Ee-Ah," which is how Tori Amos sings it in her Ophelia. In 2016, The Lumineers had a hit with a five-syllable Ophelia: "Oh-Oh-Feel-Ee-Ah."
  • Artists to cover this song include Animal Liberation Orchestra, Jim Byrnes and My Morning Jacket. The Dead Ships played the song at a benefit concert in 2012 after Levon Helm passed away, and the following year released it as a free download on the first anniversary of Helm's death.

    In a Songfacts interview with their frontman Devlin McCluskey, he talked about recording the song. "It was right after I came back from the funeral. We had a show in Pomona and we played this song. It's got this big high note in it, and I can just remember pushing that so hard and being hit with this thing of, no matter how hard I go at it, no matter how hard I push for it, absolutely nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to bring him back."
  • Band biographer Barney Hoskyns claims the song isn't named for Shakespeare's heroine, but for Hee Haw comedienne Minnie Pearl, whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley.

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