by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1998
Well, it’s one major reason why you have to have the original albums, not the collections. It never even made it to a collection. It never even got played on stage. But it’s The Band at their very best. It’s sublime Garth Hudson at his very best. It’s one of my all time favourite Band tracks. It makes Barney Hoskyns’ Top 20 Band tracks. It makes my Top 10.
First the line-up is certainly different:
Twin drummers, as in the current line-up. Two keyboard players, but one is Robbie Robertson playing hynoptic clavinette as a rhythm instrument. No guitar. Layer upon layer of Garth Hudson. Voices switching in their best style where you have to listen hard to work out which is which (not that I’m bothered). Probably too hard to do on stage, though with the addition of Richard Bell’s abilities on both percussive keyboards and sustained keyboards they could probably manage it.
On the CD version it closes the album, though the original LP release (and the Japanese CD version) gave us a different running order with Rags and Bones as the final selection. It also contains the only reference to the album title, Northern Lights -Southern Cross. At first sight, the title seems to refer to the night sky (compare Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Southern Cross the same year). In this song, the words ‘northern lights’ are followed by ‘in the midnight sun’ so refer to the heavens. The album title as a whole refers beyond that to the Canada-Arkansas axis within The Band. Northern Lights is Canada.  Southern Cross is the Confederate flag, or The South. The album’s centrepiece is Acadian Driftwood and this connects Canada with New Orleans. 
Let’s review the quotes first:
Chris Morris (Billboard, CD sleeve notes)
The following study of the lyrics will inevitably contain over-interpretation. I’ve tried to follow up every lead and will probably have assigned meanings that were not intended to be there. This is almost always the case with analyzing lyrics (or poetry). Take it as read that it’s the music that matters, and remember Robbie Robertson’s comment that he never knew nor wanted to know the exact words to Little Richard or Chuck Berry songs.
The only place they printed the words officially on a release is the Japanese edition of the CD. There is a problem with the Japanese CD lyrics, as usual :
Where was the unicorn
Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
The real lyrics for this section:
There was a unicorn
At least, that’s what I think they are and the website agrees. Maybe the Japanese translator is right and we’re wrong. In which case they’re crap. Whatever, they don’t sound a lot like The Band. Actually, on the surface they sound a bit like that British band, Yes. Gandalf and goblins and gremlins and Gemini.
Hoskyns says this.
Unicorns and dragon queens had always seemed more medieval to me, and maybe my mind was adding a capital letter so that ‘burgundy sky’ became ‘Burgundy sky’ which added to the impression. Hoskyns is right though. A glance at a dictionary of mythology makes the connections if we follow the song through.
First the title. Jupiter Hollow. Sounds like a place. I thought of it as a location somewhere in the woods, a hollow in the ground, a mystic dell. It could be a place name, which would sound American. Compare Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ I see it as a place in the woods, though I wondered if it could be an astronomical phenomenem, possibly a view or aspect of Jupiter, tying in with ‘Mercury rising too’ and ‘Northern Lights’. Or it could be astrological. Holt’s The Planets has Jupiter as the ‘Bringer of Jollility’ which fits the mood of the music perfectly.It’s a very ‘jolly’ tune and arrangment.
During the period of composition (1914-16), (Holst) studied astrology closely … and was later keen to emphasize that it was the astrological character of each planet … that he meant to express. 
Jupiter is a classical reference, but he was the Roman sky-god, not the Greek one (Zeus).
It starts off like a standard fairy story. The Northern Lights cast a glow through the window, and you find yourself led away. You follow through the sycamore and find yourself in this magic dell, this place (or this state of mind) you’ve never been before. Sycamores are a pretty ubiquitous tree. I don’t think they place the story. And initially, at this point, neither do the unicorn and the dragon queen. To pick those up you have to listen further. First in the chorus:
Livin’ in another world, livin’ in another time
In the next verse, we find that the place is so far, so near and:
Like a time machine take you out to a different year
This is listed as ‘sphere’ on the published lyric, but must surely be ‘the music of the spheres’ which is the heavenly swish of the circling planets  … back to Holst and astrology again. We’re dancing to the music created by moving planets. We’re dancing to their tune. We’re led by their forces.
Phoebus Apollo places us in Ancient Greece. Phoebus meant ‘shining’ and was applied to Apollo as the god of the sun.(He was also the god of music and of prophecy). Comets were hurled by Apollo, they were the darts or arrows of Apollo. Intriguingly, in the legends Apollo had obtained his lyre from Hermes (Roman: Mercury) in a tale reminiscent of Daniel and The Sacred Harp. Once we know we’re talking about Apollo, the rest starts to fit. The Oracle of Apollo was at Delphi.
According to one legend, the young Apollo went to Delphi … to slay there the earth serpent… This python, a son of Gaia, sent up revelations through a fissure in the rock; a priestess, the Pythia, inhaling the potent fumes, was thus inspired to give voice to cryptic utterances – the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle. Apollo killed the great snake and took its place. Another legend makes the dispossessed creature a she-dragon named Delphyne, the ‘womb-like’ hence Delphi. 
So Apollo links up with a she-dragon, a dragon queen. And the dragon queen is named Delphyne. Delphyne is not a well-known Greek legend. Neither the Encyclopedia Britannica nor the definitive New Larousse Dictionary of Mythology have any index reference to her. Robert Graves Greek Myths  mentions Delphyne as a ‘serpent tailed sister monster of Typhon’ and that’s about it. In mythology, the words serpent, python, dragon and even worm are just about interchangeable. In the Biblical / Western tradition serpents symbolize deceit and evil. In Greek myth, as in Chinese folklore, the association is with wisdom. Delphyne links us to the Delphic Oracle whose utterances are ‘enigmatic, cryptic, obscure.’ Why am I devoting a paragraph to this obscure Greek dragon? Because Robbie Robertson’s daughter is called Delfine, which is the French spelling of Delphyne. This might point to motivation, certainly to more than a passing interest in the myths of Delphi. It also links to the start being like a fairy story.
The Delphic Oracle prophesised, through the mouth of a priestess stoned on the vapour of burning laurel leaves (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.) The words were not only hard to understand, but also hard to hear. So we get:
Twas then the prophet said, the secret of the dead
(The sycamore’s) leaves were regarded as the symbol of peace and quiet in the next life; the souls of the deceased were sometimes thought of as the birds that lived in the branches of the sycamore. 
I don’t know where the old soldier singing a love song comes from, but it makes me think of the Danville train rather than a man in Greek costume. I like had the distance in his eyes.
There are things which puzzle me. The printed lyrics are:
And as the moon went down and the sun came up
Which ostensibly means it got hotter as the sun came up – the mercury rose in the thermometer. OK, makes a kind of sense, but hardly worth mentioning. I was pretty sure it’s ‘Mercury’ with a capital-M. But Venus is the Morning Star, not Mercury … and though there’s no definite article before Mercury, it seems to be the physical planet rising in the sky.  Astrologically, Mercury rising near or on the ascendant is significant for communicators, writers and musicians.
The final verse is:
Jupiter Hollow. In the midnight sun.
This is intriguing, enigmatic … oh, yes ‘Delphic’. Robertson’s characteristic juxtaposition of places is here … if Jupiter Hollow’s in the midnight sun then it’s Canada not Greece. And the singer’s like a ‘pioneer on the new frontier’. But what is ‘the new frontier’? The term has variously been used for outer space and poverty in inner cities. In the past it was a receding line moving westwards (and in Canada northwards).
The (Greek) muses gather by a river.
In his aspect of god of music, Apollo’s habitual companions were the Muses. Thus he was called Apollo Musagetes … at Delphi, their names – Nete, Mese and Hypate – personified the three strings of the lyre. The Muses were for long merged in an indissoluble choir which presided over music and poetry. 
The Muses derived their inspiration from the sacred spring, Castalia, at Delphi. This spring was linked to the River Cephisus on the same mountain, which was thought to be the mouth of the River Styx, separating the world from Hades. So the river which inspires the Muses is the river of the tears we shed. Sorrow is the mother of musical inspiration. I guess some folks call it the blues.
I’m even prepared to believe there’s a mythological significance in circling swallows overhead, and I found this reference:
In antiquity, Greek women poured oil on (swallows which they caught in the house) and let them fly away, apparently for the purpose of removing ill-luck from the household. 
Swallows were unlucky omens in Greek mythology (though lucky for the Romans). In Babylonian myth, swallows were ‘the imperishable northern stars.’  Maybe it’s just a visual image, but an omen of misfortune circling over the river of tears seems appropriate.
The end has nothing to do with Greek mythology (I think). It’s sudden, personal and sharp:
Because nobody cares when a man goes mad
That brings us back to the Muse, to inspiration, to the expression of (the) soul, to mortality.
I used to think the lyrics Tolkienesque (come back Marc Bolan, all is forgiven) but a detailed analysis reveals that it was more carefully-crafted than I’d imagined. I’d always thought of the song as a great tune and a brilliant performance with lyrics of lesser quality. As I delved further in writing this I began to realise that once more Robbie Robertson was investing a great deal of craft into his writing.
What about a contemporary performance by The Band? I suspect the layered keyboards were beyond the stage technology of 1975, and they’d have needed at least three keyboards set up assuming that Robertson would have played clavinette and the other two split the organ and synth duties. It’s probably less of a challenge nowadays, though it would have to use a greatly-simplified keyboard arrangement or prepared computerized tracks, which is hardly their style.They’ve avoided it for more than twenty years and I can’t see Levon Helm 1998-edition singing these words with great conviction. Mythology – American mythology is the basis of The Band. Astrology? Greek gods? A little too ‘West Coast 75’ for them, I think.
It’s one of a group of great but unperformed songs (Daniel & The Sacred Harp is another.) Danko and Levon could share the vocals with a little help from Ciarlante, and what a tremendous showcase for Garth it would be. Recent (June 1998) lists of Top Tens on the Website showed that I’m not alone in rating it as one of their very best songs.