Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dolly Parton: Jolene

SONG Jolene

WRITTEN BY Dolly Parton


APPEARS ON Jolene (1973); The Essential Dolly Parton (2005); The Ultimate Dolly Parton; many others.

NOTE 1 "Jolene" is an essential Dolly Parton song. Any anthology without it is by definition incomplete. 2 The White Stripes' epic performance of "Jolene" appears on their album Under Great White Northern Lights.

Alarmed by the attention paid by her husband to a sexy bank teller and charmed by the name of a fan, Dolly Parton combined the two and wrote a classic country ballad of sexual envy and despair. Though lyrically simple on the surface, "Jolene" evokes a swirl of competing emotions that, though addressed exclusively to the eponymous temptress, raises question after question about the nature of the singer's devotion to her husband and indeed about her own state of mind.

Parton gets down to brass tacks immediately, invoking her rival's name repeatedly before casting off any pretense of pride to beg for mercy. She commingles flattery and abject submission, lauding Jolene's many physical attributes before admitting that "I cannot compete with you" and that Jolene could "easily take my man." Parton admits that her man dreams of Jolene and not her ("He talks about you in his sleep") and then comes out and says it: "My happiness depends on you." One wonders whether Parton takes a terrible risk by being so brutally frank: Might she not be tempting Jolene to aim her erotic power at Parton's man?

In any case, Parton lets us into the soul of a troubled and lost woman whose happiness depends on Jolene, on her man -- on anyone but herself. She has so lost control of her own life that she's willing to humiliate herself before a younger woman for the sake of a man who may be preoccupied with that woman. Indeed, that's all we really know about the husband, save that for some reason Parton believes "he's the only one for me."

Indeed, in many ways, "Jolene" is as interesting for what Parton leaves unsaid as for what she reveals. She absolves her husband of any complicity in the triangle, presumably because he could not possibly resist Jolene's siren song. Is it because men are that weak? Or has he strayed before, but Parton fears that this time he won't return? Why does Parton believe that Jolene's allure will overwhelm the substance of a relationship? Possibly, the relationship has faded or become loveless and routine, but she doesn't want to leave something that has its own comforts and because she fears that, whoever she is with, there will always be another Jolene.

Although she sings that "you don't know what he means to me," she never explains what just what he does mean to her. She's inviting us to fill in the blank with out our own experience, but it may also be that she can't recognize her own jealousy and possessiveness. We don't know what she means to him, either, although he comes across as aloof and easily led astray. Why would an emotionally healthy woman need such a man in her life?

In the end, the singer emerges as a troubled person whose life has become absorbed into that of her husband's, fears losing it and him, and can do nothing but beg mercy of the force seemingly bent on destroying her. In this regard, "Jolene" serves as a cautionary tale reminding us "to thine own self be true," because when push comes to shove, you don't want to jump only to find that Jolene holds the net.

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I'm begging you please don't take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don't take him just because you can

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your voice is like soft summer rain,
And I cannot compete with you Jolene

He talks about you in his sleep
There's nothing I can do to keep
From crying when I hear your name, Jolene

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don't know what he means to me, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I'm begging you please don't take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don't take him just because you can

You could have your choice of men
But I could never love again
He's the only one for me, Jolene

I had to have this talk with you
My happiness depends on you
And whatever you decide to do, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I'm begging you please don't take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don't take him just because you can
Jolene, Jolene

The White Stripes bring post-millenial angst to Parton's lyrics; the enthusiastic crowd demonstrates the crossover appeal of Parton's lyrics and the universality of her theme:


  1. Hey, wasn't that Porter Wagoner? Good write-up of a really good country song--man, the White Stripes really got down to business on their cover version!

  2. That's who that is! His last CD before he died, Wagonmaster is well worth checking out.

    The Stripes are great. My son, who now writes for Just A Song, turned me on to them.

  3. "Jolene" was my introduction to Dolly Parton; I was hooked from the start. Although I have to admit that I love "Coat of Many Colors" and "I Will Always Love You" more than this one. She has one of those quintessential country voices, just like Iris DeMent.

    If I recall correctly, Dolly Parton was Porter Wagoner's protegé and musical partner for something like 10 years.

  4. There's as much great Dolly as there is Patsy Cline. I'm a big fan of "Coat," too. I think you're right about Porter and Dolly. He may also have discouraged her from seeking a wider pop audience. Not exactly the best advice!

    The first Trio album by Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou is a gem.

  5. What a terrific song writer Dolly is. She seldom gets credit for this (apart from folks like Linda and Emmylou).
    K, I prefer Trio II. Just a matter of preference really.

    Peter Tibbles