The more I read the lines of the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, the more obvious the meeting seems to be. To me. Some may read this explanation and say, “well duh, of course that’s what it means”. Some may find something altogether different. What follows is what I, myself, believe to be the meaning of what I have called one of the saddest songs ever written.
In its opening lines, the song sets the stage for what seems to be a wedding. The guests, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils. But within, I sense a somber note. Reading (or hearing) these lines one could just as easily envision of a funeral. The mourners, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils.
After some consideration, I believe the author — Judy Blue Eyes herself — is equating death with that saddest of wedding circumstances, the common tragedy of hopefully past centuries — that of a young woman with dreams of her own, and hope for a bright and shining life, condemned to a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy older man, who offers to his prize little more than survival.
Her own insignificance in all of this is demonstrated as those attending the event impute their own beliefs on who she is, or was. Young men ask and answer their own questions, her own feelings are not considered, whether because they lack importance, or because death has rendered her mute.
But back to the wedding. The routine of her existence provides her a place to be, but also separates her from the broader society. She holds herself captive behind an almost opaque barrier. The colors of the day is an archaic reference to the wedding bouquet, and as the crowd gathers she tosses the bouquet, and in doing so casts away her former life, and with it her hopes and dreams.
The next verse defines the dream. The Prince who rides to save her, to shatter the barrier, and deliver her and bring her the life for which she has so longed.
Guests come for a couple of days and go away, not to be seen again. Her view of the world at large is increasingly oblique. What hope she retains fades as the tragedy of her existence becomes who, and all, that she is.
The iron wheels of course could be either a wedding carriage, or a funeral cortege. But the iron bells seem not to be wedding bells at all, but are instead calling her away, alone in death. The final lines repeat, and reinforce the chorus. But now we hear — so I believe — the voice of the husband, calling her away to the living death of her new life. “Come away, alone. With me”.