Band – Ophelia

I believe I could listen to Levon sing anything. He makes a song feel like that old shirt with holes that fits perfectly that your wife wants to hide or throw away. You keep going back to it to wear it triumphally.

This was inspired by the Shakespeare play Hamlet.

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.

It was on the album Northern Lights – Southern Cross released in 1975. It peaked at #26 in the Billboard Album Charts and #27 in Canada in 1976.

It wasn’t a huge hit but the song peaked at #62 in the Billboard 100 in 1976…

Robbie Robertson: There was another tune I was anxious to spring on Levon because I thought it had his name written all over it. The song dealt with the mysterious disappearance of Ophelia, and I had an old-timey-type chord progression to go with a whole new spin on the story. I liked having a modern-day Shakespearean character that Hamlet couldn’t get, and neither could I. Ophelia—they don’t have names like that anymore, or maybe they do in Denmark. I loved the way the track felt after we cut it. The combination of horns and keyboards Garth overdubbed on this song was one of the very best things I’d ever heard him do. It was definitely the cherry on the cake, and completed this musical odyssey. “Ophelia” became my favorite track on the album, even if it didn’t have the depth of some of my other songs. The pure, jubilant pleasure of that tune swayed me.

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. I don’t know why Robbie just wouldn’t say that to begin with…he doesn’t seem to be a person that puts on airs.

From 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 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 one-year anniversary of Helm’s death.

In our 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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

23 thoughts on “Band – Ophelia”

      1. Yes indeed. I’m very well. I just had my kids over and we had a great time. The wet season has passed in Bogotá so now we can enjoy sun-filled days. I’m actually writing a post about it. I’m hoping to get back into some routine again with my blog having just paid the annual subscription fee. All is very well my friend.
        And how are you and your family going in these strange times?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Glad you got to see your kids. We are doing well Matt! Just getting ready for Christmas…no outside family of course just us three but that is ok. I’m looking forward to Christmas this year…
        2020 sucks except for one thing…and you know what that is…The Dodgers are champions. I never get tired of writing that.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeh the virus is in full gusto in America as it is here in Colombia. It’s worrisome at least according the media. My understanding is the virus since it’s onset has killed 40% more above the usual ‘excess deaths’ in a year.
        Like you I am very satisfied your Dodgers and my Tigers are champions this year. I get what you mean totally.


    1. I agree with that…the previous album was the cover album…which they did a great job but it wasn’t originals.
      Their last album Islands was spotty…but it was full of outtakes I believe.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great song I’ve sung along with many times. Didn’t realize it was Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Just watched a really good movie told from her perspective. There is a jazzy goodness to the song that never gets old, like that shirt you talk about ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was not familiar with this song, but it really comes alive – no pun intended – in their live performance. While I’ve never really followed The Band that closely, I sense that, like The Grateful Dead, they sounded better live. The same goes for British art rock band Muse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You may not agree with me on this…but I look at CCR and The Band as a strange relation… both Americana but to me CCR was more commercial of the two of course. They had some similarities…

      Liked by 2 people

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