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The Meaning of The Band’s “Ophelia”

“Ophelia” by The Band is a timeless rock song that tells the story of a woman named Ophelia who left town without an explanation, leaving everyone — but especially the singer — to wonder where she went.

Written by lead guitarist guitarist Robbie Robertson, the track was released in 1975 as the lead single from their album Northern Lights – Southern Cross. “Ophelia” remains a fan favorite to this day, and its meaning has sparked discussion among music fans and critics over the years.

“Ophelia” Origins

There have been varying interpretations of the song, specifically pertaining to the real identity of the Ophelia that inspired the lyrics. However it has generally been considered to be about one of two famous Ophelias.

The first, of course, is the most famous Ophelia of all — Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which may be hinted at through some Shakespearian elements in the lyrics, but not directly enough to be conclusive.

Still, the Hamlet connection was the main assumption for several years, until the 2006 release of Barney Hoskyns’ biography, Across the Great Divide. The biography states that the song was actually inspired by the famous comedian Minnie Pearl, whose born name was Ophelia.

Robertson spoke of the song with Something Else Reviews in 2014, stating a bit about its meaning and also revealing that he considers it to be one of the best songs that The Band created:

The chord progression on ‘Ophelia’ was something that could have come out of the 1930s. The storytelling was ancient and modern in the same breath. The full-on modernism in the sound, in the arrangement, was paramount in Garth’s experimentation. It is unquestionably one of his greatest feats, in my opinion, on any Band song.

Robbie Robertson on “Ophelia”, 2014.

Essentially, what Robertson was saying here about the sound is that they managed to mash together elements of old music, like the horns, and more modern techniques like the jammed-out, free-flowing guitar melody to create something that was unique. Ultimately, today it stands as a fitting time capsule from the 1970s.

“Ophelia” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics to Ophelia present the story of a woman who left town, beginning with the realization and proceeding with the aftermath of her absence. While the song is upbeat and groovy, the overarching theme of the lyrics is of heartbreak and despair, adding another interesting element to this classic song.

It is not clear the relationship that the vocalist has with Ophelia, and there has been some speculation about this as well. Some suggest that they are lovers, while others suggest that she was more of a respected political figure, or otherwise representing of a cause that is worth dying for.

Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics and see what this song is all about, starting with the first verse:

Boards on the window, mail by the door
What would anybody leave so quickly for?
Where have you gone?

First verse to “Ophelia” by The Band.

The opening lyrics depict some telltale signs that somebody is no longer around, such as boarded up windows at what was once their home, and a pile of mail at the front door. This was clearly unexpected, as the singer wonders why anybody would leave in such a hurry, and he does not know where she has gone.

In the second verse, we can feel the weight of her absence:

The old neighborhood just ain’t the same
Nobody knows just what became of
Tell me, what went wrong

Second verse to “Ophelia” by The Band.

Everything seems lesser without her around, and the whole town seems to be missing something. People are talking about where she’s gone, and nobody seems to know. The singer again laments the loss of Ophelia, and he wonders what has happened.

The chorus continues to wonder where she is, while also presenting us with uncertainty about her identity:

Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I’d die for you

Chorus to “Ophelia” by The Band.

While before this the obvious assumption was that Ophelia was a lover, here it could be argued that she is depicted as some kind of civil rights leader who was wanted by the law. She may have been in hiding, or have had her trust broken in some way, and chosen to leave.

Despite this, the protagonist feels strongly about her and claims that he would die for her.

The bridge brings us some nostalgia:

Ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear
Like Ophelia
Please darken my door

Bridge to “Ophelia” by The Band.

Ashes of laughter is a way of saying that the laughter has burned out, and is no longer there, but the memories of it remain. The ghost is clear means that while her presence can be felt, she cannot be seen.

Then, he faces existential dread about the good things in life disappearing — thus containing the nugget of wisdom at the core of what this song is built around. The main idea is to enjoy your time with the people who mean the most to you, as you never know when they could suddenly disappear.

When he wishes for Ophelia to darken his door, he means that he hopes to see her figure appear in his doorway, with her silhouette blocking the light from coming in.

Here we have a guitar solo followed by another chorus, and one final verse to close out the song:

They got your number, scared and running
But I’m still waiting for the second coming
Of Ophelia
Come back home

Outro to “Ophelia” by The Band.

Ophelia’s on the run, but the singer has faith that she will one day return. Or, at least he hopes that she will. Of course, this is a biblical reference to the second coming of Jesus Christ, or The Apocalypse. Thus lending itself further to the theory that “Ophelia” is not actually a love song.

Whatever your thoughts on the meaning of “Ophelia” we can all agree that it’s a wonderful song. Listen below, and let us know in the comments what you think this song is all about.