Dolly Parton’s Jolene
For my music review of an early country song, I’ve chosen Dolly Parton’s 1973 breakout hit, Jolene. This song has probably gotten all the attention it’s deserved. It was a number one hit on the Country Billboard charts, been covered by a ton of people; from Olivia Newton John to the White Stripes, and Rolling Stone includes it on its 500 greatest songs of all time list.
Like The Beatles’ Help!, Jolene begins with the chorus. It throws us right into the fire of this housewife’s jealousy. After she hooks us with the chorus, the first verse is pure poetry as she describes her competition, “Your beauty is beyond compare/With flaming locks of auburn hair/With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green.” She basically creates an almost perfect woman that is the apple of the wrong eye and the thorn in her spine.
Unlike Loretta Lynn’s tough talking, You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man), Dolly’s protagonist exposes her fear and insecurity, “And I can easily understand/How you could easily take my man/But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.” It puts Dolly in a vulnerable place, which makes listeners be that much more able to connect with it. And it’s haunting, almost “House of the Rising Sun”, chord progression adds more to the allure of the song.
During the first verses, you might picture the lyrics being sung in solitude, until the last verse; it is here she reveals that this has been a conversation with Jolene the whole time, “I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/And whatever you decide to do, Jolene.” And she puts her fate in whatever Jolene’s next move is. Often there is the temptation to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end, creating an organized story almost…but songs like this show us that it can be more effective to just throw the listener into the middle of the chaos, and not try to wrap it all up nicely in the end. The song ends the same way it begins, with that great acoustic guitar pickin’, and the desperate chorus begging Jolene “please don’t take my man.” We know more about this woman Jolene, and that the protagonist fears for life after her man, but we never find out what happens next.
Focusing primarily on the lyrics, the combination of the words with the music makes Jolene an excellent country song. I love that its in a minor key, which has been a rarity for commercial country. You never get tired of the chord but it is the drum beat, though, that gets me the most. With it’s almost country-disco feel, it uproots the traditional folk chords, and gives it a fresh shuffle that drives the song.