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True Meaning Behind “Southern Cross” By Crosby, Stills & Nash

Crosby, Stills, & Nash are one of the most successful and influential supergroups to grace folk-rock. The trio produced countless hit songs, but Southern Cross was one of the ones that cut the deepest. It’s almost haunting how deeply personal the track was, but that was largely because of the inspirations and revelations recounted in the song. In this article, we’ll dive into the backstory and meaning of Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills, & Nash. 

Background of “Southern Cross”

Southern Cross was a very successful track by Crosby, Nash, & Stills. This trio was a folk-rock supergroup that found immense success in their own bands before joining together into one of the most prolific groups the genre has ever seen. Massively influential, they would later team up with Neil Young to produce some of their most well-known songs today. 

On its own, Southern Cross was a success. In 1982, the song would rise to number 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and would eventually become the group’s final top-40 hit. It’s also an interesting entry for the group, as David Crosby wasn’t around during the entire album production process. As such, his vocals don’t appear in the original recordings of the track, though he would later perform it on stage and in the music video with the other two. 

Southern Cross was actually based on another song titled Seven League Boots. That track references a pair of boots that allow the wearer to stride seven leagues, which is around 21 miles, with each step. It’s a song, and a reference, that appears in a lot of European folk tales. But while the earlier track and folk tales reference traversing distances and stepping around obstacles, Southern Cross is talking more about stepping around love.

The Meaning of “Southern Cross”

Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Stills was the one who reworked a lot of the lyrics from Seven League Boots. He had recently gone through a divorce with French singer and songwriter Véronique Sanson. He threaded in a different chorus and a new verse, one that was inspired by and described a boat trip he took through Polynesia. Even in the song, you can tell he isn’t over the relationship, as he tries to call his wife but receives no answer. 

In a noisy bar in Avalon, I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized
Why twice you ran away

He goes through a lot of the places he visited on the trip, but it isn’t just a recount of the events. The track is something of a cathartic experience. Heading out sailing and traveling gave him a lot of perspective on his life, his marriage, and the subsequent divorce. It helped him put everything into place in his mind and allowed him to heal from all the hurting he had been going through. 

Going through the track, it’s clear that Stills is completely heartbroken. But in his travels, some small bit of hope still remains that one day, he’ll get it right. Looking at the horizon, he knows that one day, he’ll find the woman that is right for him. 

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be running from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise
The promise of a coming day

The final destination for Stills in the song—at least sort of—is the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is actually the Crux constellation, lending its name to the title of the track. Sailors in the Southern Hemisphere have used the Crux constellation to help them navigate for centuries, much like sailors in the Northern Hemisphere rely on constellations and points like the North Star

The Southern Cross gets its name from the four brightest stars in the constellation. Those four seem to form a cross shape that’s easily picked out in the night sky. You can also see the constellation on the national flags of New Zealand and Australia. Stills used the name of the constellation for the song because he so often stared at it during his time at sea. 

While staring up at the stars, it puts things into perspective. Many people feel small when they stand by the ocean or contemplate the immense size of the universe. Things so big or far away can make big problems seem small. Combine that with the navigational usefulness of the Southern Cross and the hope of something new over the horizon, and you reach the same epiphany that Stills did in his travels. 

But while the Southern Cross was his guide, he was obviously in search of something. New adventures and chapters are great, but he was looking for something—or someone—during his travels. 

I have been around the world (Looking)
Looking for that woman-girl
(And I know she knows)
Who knows love can endure

This section of the song is the one that makes it clear that Stills is looking for a woman who will never leave him. One that he can find an understanding with and grow alongside. Talking about finding a woman who knows their love can endure is especially powerful right after he went through a heart-wrenching divorce as well, as he just wants someone willing to put in the same level of work that he does. 

We’ve done a pretty solid job of dissecting the track to this point, but perhaps understanding the real meaning behind Southern Cross is easiest when done through the eyes of the man who penned it. 

The inspiration for the track, according to Stills:

“The Curtis Brothers brought a wonderful song called ‘Seven League Boots,’ but it drifted around too much. I rewrote a new set of words and added a different chorus, a story about a long boat trip I took after my divorce.”

The meaning of Southern Cross, according to Stills:

“It’s about using the power of the universe to heal your wounds,” he adds to the song’s meaning. “Once again, I was given somebody’s gem and cut and polished it.”

In the end, the track is all about Stills sailing away from his heartbreak and finding hope again. Looking out at the vastness of the world, he feels sure that a new adventure is about to begin, even if it’s still beyond the horizon.

Southern Cross reflects all of the pain that Stills was dealing with at the time, but it also contains the realization that he and his ex-wife just weren’t right for each other. This sentiment, and the hope he has for his own future, are very evident in the closing verse of the song. 

So we cheated and we lied and we tested
And we never failed to fail
It was the easiest thing to do
You will survive being bested
Somebody fine
Will come along, make me forget about loving you
In the Southern Cross

In a way, he feels free by the end of the track and is looking forward to the next chapter of his life. He knows that they weren’t right for each other, but maybe if he follows the Southern Cross, he will find what he’s looking for and will begin to be happy again. 

The song is all about new beginnings, dealing with the pain of heartbreak, and the realization that both of you will move on to find happiness.

1 thought on “True Meaning Behind “Southern Cross” By Crosby, Stills & Nash”

  1. Thank you for this article. Have always liked the melody and their harmony in the song. In my old age….lol…(I am just a tad younger than these guys)…anyways, the lyrics of songs matter very much to me, now. Realizing how many song lyrics are empty and useless, not worth speaking out loud in the space/time continuum, I pay more attention when singing along. Thank you again, I will be reading more of your articles.

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