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The Meaning of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Southern Cross”

As a lifelong sailor and former schooner captain, “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash has never been far from my ears. The song is one of the quintessential high seas classics, loved both by the true sailors of the world and the armchair sailors who have never stepped foot on a boat.

Released in 1982 on the group’s third album Daylight Again, “Southern Cross” became one of the signature songs from a group that was unstoppable throughout the 70s, with or without the addition of Neil Young.

The song contains a number of nautical references that fly right over the heads of many listeners. Hence the reason why you probably sought out this article in the first place.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. I’ll explain every term we come across in the lyrics later in the post. First we’re going to go over the song’s origin story.

“Southern Cross” Origins

Interestingly, “Southern Cross” is not entirely an original composition. The songwriting credit goes to Stephen Stills, as well as Rick and Michael Curtis, also known as The Curtis Brothers.

Stills based “Southern Cross” on The Curtis Brothers song “Seven League Boots”.

In the liner notes to the song included on the CSN box set, Stills explains:

The Curtis Brothers brought a wonderful song called “Seven League Boots”, but it drifted around too much. I rewrote a new set of words and added a different chorus, a story about a long boat trip I took after my divorce. It’s about using the power of the universe to heal your wounds. Once again, I was given somebody’s gem and cut and polished it.

Stephen Stills on the origins of “Southern Cross”

There is a 1975 recording of “Seven League Boots” that includes the Curtis Brothers alongside Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac), and Thom Mooney (Nazz). The melody, main guitar riff, and many of the lyrics are an exact match. Hear that below.

The Curtis Brothers “Seven League Boots” with Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Thom Mooney

“Southern Cross” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics to “Southern Cross” are ripe with poetic nautical references that speak of a peaceful escape from the difficult loss of a relationship. The song romanticizes the positive aspects of being on a boat — the natural beauty, the sense of peace — and fail to mention the perils of the sea, and the often-grueling nature of life on a boat.

We still love “Southern Cross”, though, as sailors, because we can all connect with the calming nature of sailing that Stills invokes. All sailors know the feeling that is described by these lyrics, and being so well-written, even non-sailors, who don’t know what he’s talking about, can feel it.

Anyway, it’s time. Let’s check out the first verse, and break down those nautical references:

Got out of town on a boat, going to Southern islands
Sailing a reach before a following sea
She was making for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete
Off the wind on this heading lie, the Marquesas
We got eighty feet of the waterline
Nicely making way
In a noisy bar in Avalon, I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized
Why twice you ran away

First verse to “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The first one is easy. Stills sings of skipping town on a boat, heading for the Southern Islands. By this he means the islands of Polynesia, or the Southern Sea Islands in the South Pacific. Hawaii is often included when discussing this group of islands.

He was sailing on a reach before a following sea, meaning that the wind is perpendicular to, or behind his vessel, and the current is also moving in the direction of the boat. This makes for easy, smooth sailing.

Then, he refers to his boat, sailing that she was making for the trades on the outside. This means that his boat is heading in the direction of the trade winds, on the outside of the Southern Islands.

Once he gets there, he will make the downhill run to Papeete, meaning that the island of Papeete is downwind of his current location. Once he reaches the trades, he will head towards Papeete.

Then, he continues, saying off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas. This means that if he keeps going off the wind instead of making that downhill run, he will eventually reach them.

Next, Stills looks to his boat, which is quite large. Eighty feet of the waterline, meaning that eighty feet worth of the boat is touching the water. This suggests the boat itself is at least 100 feet long.

Back on land, Stills recalls calling his ex-lover from a noisy bar. This tidbit brings the whole emotional journey of the sailing references into context. The narrator is running away from emotional turmoil.

The call was not successful, apparently, because on a midnight watch Stills realized why she left. When on long sailing journeys, a “watch” means an assigned period of time that you must be on deck and alert. These generally last about 2-3 hours.

A “midnight watch”, then, is self-explanatory. He’s looking out across the ocean in the middle of the night, thinking about his lost relationship. The chorus puts us inside his mind:

(I think about)
Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me, larger voices calling
What heaven brought you and me
Cannot be forgotten (I’ve been around the world)

Pre-chorus to “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

No nautical references here. He’s just lamenting the loss of his relationship — feeling sorry for, and disconnected from, himself.

He refers to his lost relationship as sent from heaven, and notes that he will never forget it. The proof is in his journeys, which were outlined in the first verse and are emphasized in the chorus:

I have been around the world (Looking)
Looking for that woman-girl
(And I know she knows)
Who knows love can endure
And you know it will

Chorus to “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Traveling the world, looking for a special woman to replace the one he’s lost. He wants someone who is willing to stick with love, suggesting that his last lover abandoned him.

The second verse is up next, bringing in the title phrase, “Southern Cross”:

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be running from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise
The promise of a coming day
So I’m sailing for tomorrow, my dreams are a-dying
And my love is an anchor tied to you
Tied with a silver chain
I have my ship
And all her flags are a-flying
She is all that I have left
And music is her name

Second verse to “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

When he refers to the Southern Cross, he is referring to the Crux constellation, which is visible in the Southern hemisphere.

One of the main things that sailors discuss when it comes to the joys of the open ocean is the clarity of the stars in the sky at night. It is absolutely breathtaking on a clear night, and that’s without even factoring in the iconic Southern Cross.

Stills says that seeing that constellation makes the long journey worth it.

This is a metaphor for moving on and finding happiness after a failed relationship. He hasn’t reached it yet, but he knows it will be worth it when he does.

He’s stuck in place by an anchor of love, meaning that his unresolved feelings and baggage are holding him ack from truly moving on.

All that he has left is his ship. Meaning his life. And it sails onward into the future.

The chorus hits again before the third and final verse:

So we cheated and we lied and we tested
And we never failed to fail
It was the easiest thing to do
You will survive being bested
Somebody fine
Will come along, make me forget about loving you
In the Southern Cross

Third verse to “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Stills touches upon the human tendency to cheat, lie, and test boundaries. Failure comes easily, but life goes on, and another lover will come along to make him forget all about his ex.

All he has to to is reach that Southern Cross…

Listen to “Southern Cross” below, and keep going to see hear a 1987 live version on The Tonight Show, and then some of the song’s most iconic covers!

Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Southern Cross”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Southern Cross” (11/3/91)

“Southern Cross” Covers

Being such an iconic song, “Southern Cross” has been covered by many artists over the years, including most notably, Jimmy Buffett. See a handful of those below. Let me know in the comments if there are any more I should check out!

Jimmy Buffett – “Southern Cross” (1999)

Kappa, Halie, and Emma – “Southern Cross”

An excellent all-female cover uploaded to Youtube in 2010, featuring Kappa Danielson and her two daughters.

Umphrey’s McGee – “Southern Cross” (1/02/15)

Jam band Umphrey’s McGee cover “Southern Cross” in 2015.