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Ophelia is a song written by Robbie Robertson of The Band….which was first released by the group on their 1975 album Northern Lights – Southern Cross…..as it was the lead single from the album. It has also appeared on several of the group’s live and compilation albums….and has been covered by such artists as Vince Gill and My Morning Jacket.

The lyrics tell of the singer’s attempt to find the heroine Ophelia. The relationship between the singer and Ophelia is never made explicit….of which Author Craig Harris refers to her as the singer’s old friend…. while music critic Nick DeRiso considers her his lover…..but he finds out that Ophelia has left town, apparently in a hurry….and according to Band biographer Barney Hoskyns….the name Ophelia for the song did not come from Shakespeare’s Hamlet….but rather from Minnie Pearl’s (of Grand Ole Opry fame) real name….however, Shakespeare scholar Stephen M. Buhler sees some Shakespearean echoes in “Ophelia”….particularly related to Othello.  In particular, Buhler sees hints that perhaps Ophelia is a black woman in a Southern town who was forced to flee because of Southern attitudes at the time towards interracial relationships with the white singer…..whereby lyrics that Buhler uses to support this view include the following….which suggests that the relationship between Ophelia and the singer was illegal as follows:

Honey, you know we broke the rule

Was somebody up against the law?

Lines such as the singer asking Ophelia to “please darken my door” suggest to Buhler that the issue may be the color of Ophelia’s skin…..but according to Harris’ interpretation, nostalgia is the key theme to the song.

“Ophelia” is an uptempo song with similarities to earlier Band songs “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” from Stage Fright….and “Life is a Carnival” from Cahoots…..as the song has a Dixieland flavor.  DeRiso hears a combination of rustic and modern elements in the music…..as Levon Helm sings the lead vocal.  According to Hoskyns, the song has “the same good-humoured regret with which [Helm] infused “Up on Cripple Creek.”….plus, Garth Hudson plays multiple instruments, including synthesizer and multiple brass and woodwind instruments….which contributes significantly to the Dixieland flavor.  As a result of the success of Hudson’s playing, DeRiso regards “Ophelia” as “Hudson’s triumph, his musical testament, his masterpiece.” Additionally, Robby Robertson plays a more prominent guitar part than he had typically played on earlier Band songs….as according to Robertson, “The chord progression on ‘Ophelia’ was something that could have come out of the 1930’s. 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.”

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