"Don Quixote" as written by and Giovanni Guerretti....
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a battered book into his hand
Standing like a prophet bold
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

I have come o'er moor and mountain
Like the hawk upon the wing
I was once a shining knight
Who was the guardian of a king
I have searched the whole world over
Looking for a place to sleep
I have seen the strong survive
And I have seen the lean grown weak

See the children of the earth
Who wake to find the table bare
See the gentry in the country
Riding off to take the air

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a rusty sword into his hand
Then striking up a knightly pose
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

See the jailor with his key
Who locks away all trace of sin
See the judge upon the bench
Who tries the case as best he can
See the wise and wicked ones
Who feed upon life's sacred fire
See the soldier with his gun
Who must be dead to be admired

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a tarnished cross into his hand
Then standing like a preacher now
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Then in a blaze of tangled hooves
He gallops off across the dusty plain
In vain to search again
Where no one will hear

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

Lyrics submitted by Jeril

"Don Quixote" as written by Gordon Lightfoot

Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

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Don Quixote song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentThis song is kind of like a late-20th-century updating of the novel Don Quixote. It contains several classic references to the book, but also some modern allusions, such as the mention of, "the youth in ghetto black." "The judge upon the bench," "The man who tips the needle," (I assume this is a person addicted to drugs), "The man who buys and sells," (maybe a reference to a drug dealer, or some other unscrupulous buyer/seller of things), and "The man who puts the collar on the ones who dare not tell," (possibly a reference to a slave owner, but more likely just a general reference to a man who limits the freedoms of others), are a mix of classic and modern allusions as well.

    The "soldier with his gun who must be dead to be admired" is another modern reference; imo, that particular lyric sounds a lot like a reference to Vietnam veterans, and the way they were basically spat on when they returned home alive. This interpretation would fit, as the song was released in 1972, and the Vietnam War didn't end until '75. Though this may be reaching on my part.

    Also, for those who don't know, "Tilting at windmills," is a phrase deriving from an iconic scene in the novel. In this scene, Quixote, a former knight who's gone mad from reading too many tales of chivalry, believes that a bunch of windmills he sees are actually giants, and proceeds to "attack" them. He ends up getting injured by a windmill's sail that hits him off his horse.

    Lightfoot describes Quixote as, "Wild, mellow, strong, weak," etc., because, as I previously mentioned, Quixote has gone mad. Though he believes in honorable notions of chivalry and does his best to "right wrongs", these notions are ultimately the delusions of an insane person. Thus, he often ends up hurting innocent people due to his naivete/lack of awareness of common reality. This is a large reason why Miguel Cervantes wrote the book, as he wanted to satirize chivalry with his work.

    This is also why there's a sense of hopelessness and futility in this song. In Lightfoot's "version", Quixote believes he can yell across the sea, and that this will somehow change the world. He even "shouts like a prophet bold" and "stands like a preacher" whilst doing so. He truly believes what he is doing will help change things. But in reality, no one can yell across the sea, it is a futile effort, and it wouldn't change the world even if you could. When he is done, he goes "in vain to search again, where no one will hear." Presumably on another ocean shore somewhere.

    In addition, I think the Quixote of this song could potentially be a representation for Lightfoot himself. Or an avatar for every musician traveling the world at the time of the song's release, trying to make social changes happen with their music. Given that the title of the album is also Don Quixote, and Lightfoot traveled from shore to shore of Canada while touring (as well as other musicians traveling from shore to shore of various countries while on tour), this interpretation might also make sense. Maybe Lightfoot saw himself, and others like him, as Don Quixotes of a sort, full of idealistic notions, but ultimately unable to effect any real change. It would also fit with the disenchantment expressed by much pop culture of the '70s, driven by realizations that hippie culture couldn't bring utopia, and events such as Watergate. The only thing that makes me doubt this interpretation a bit are the references to the rusty sword, battered book (which I assume is either a Bible, to fit with the priest imagery, or one of Quixote's treasured chivalric novels in Cervantes' book), and tarnished cross that this Quixote carries. However, I think those might just be references to the book/pieces of imagery meant to evoke a particular feeling more so than to be taken literally. If I'm right on this, it'd be yet another example of this song being a late-20th-century update of Cervantes' classic novel.

    As far as the tone of the song is concerned, its rather upbeat for the most part, but at times has a sense of melancholy about it, mainly at the parts where Quixote attempts to futilely shout across the sea. This also imitates the tone of the novel to a degree, as Don Quixote is tragi-comic in its cruel absurdity.

    Also, I like how Lightfoot switches from a third person perspective of Quixote in the first verse, to Quixote's own point of view in the second, then back to third person for the rest of the song. Lightfoot uses that second verse to have Quixote describe his own past, and also to give us an idea as to the personal motivations behind the character's endeavors. I also appreciate the episodic way Lightfoot writes the song, which is exactly like the book. Lightfoot mentions all kinds of different people, presumably ones that this modern Quixote has met on his travels, but doesn't linger on any one person or their story. He also repeats the chorus about Quixote shouting "across the ocean" as if he is constantly traveling to multiple shores across the world.

    Ultimately, not my favorite Lightfoot song, but one that I like, and I very much appreciate its lyrical content. I love these lyrics in particular: "Then in a blaze of tangled hooves,he gallops off across the dusty plain," which is a reference to La Mancha (a dusty, arid area of Spain that the fictional Quixote hails from), and a reference to Quixote's faithful, yet tired, weary, and worn-down old nag Rocinante. I also love this lyric: "See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life's sacred fire." Remarkable imagery; you can ascertain several meanings from that one.

    P.S. -- In response to John Johnston, I don't think your interpretation of the lyric, "See the drunkard in the tavern, stemming gold to make ends meet," is correct. Your analysis doesn't make any sense in context with the other lyrics. I looked the phrase up on Google last night, and there were a couple posts on Lightfoot-centric forums about it. Apparently, one of those posts was created by a person who recently asked Lightfoot himself, after a concert (nowadays, Lightfoot often comes out and interacts with people who linger for a while after his concerts), what "stemming for gold" means. He responded that "stemming" was slang, similar in meaning to "bumming," as in "bumming for cigarettes." Supposedly, a couple people Lightfoot knew in the '70s used "stemming" as slang a lot, and they would "stem" for cigarettes all the time, so Lightfoot incorporated that bit of slang into the song. I think it makes the most sense, honestly. A drunkard would definitely be the kind of person who'd bum a few gold coins off someone in order to get another beer. And if you wonder why the drunkard would be bumming for "gold coins", I chalk that up as another reference to the book/the time period the book was written in (late 16th century, early 17th), when the Spanish were most likely still using gold coins as currency.
    3d1mandakngon July 29, 2016   Link
  • 0
    General CommentFutility. . .Gordon's sad outcry for people who want to change the world. Here, he paints the world in black and white, and this idealist who wants to save the world, but "Then in a blaze of tangled hooves, he gallops off across the dusty plain/In vain to search again, where no one will hear." Because no one will care!
    sammyblueon June 20, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIf the internet is to be believed, the "stemming gold" line (which never made sense to me) is a reference to gold smelters (or whatever the name is for someone who extracts gold) "liberating" tiny quantities of gold from their workplace in their pipe-stems.
    John Johnstonon May 11, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThe "man who tips the needle" can also be a reference to when goods were purchased by weight using a scale with a needle to indicate balance. The "man who puts the collar on the ones who dare not tell" possibly references priests and confession.
    Larissaroon June 05, 2017   Link

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