PERFECT SONG: JOLENE by Dolly Parton
This article and many others are featured on my blog, Through These Eyes, covering everything from my recent move from Seattle to Nashville, to my reviews of music and film.
For the second installment of my “Perfect Song” series I’ve chosen Dolly Parton’s 1973 breakout hit, Jolene. Like the previous song I focused on (The Beatles’ Help!), I’m not choosing an esoteric song to prove to you the depths of my music appreciation. I’ve chosen a song that for all intent and purpose has probably gotten all the attention it’s deserved. It was a #1 hit on the Country Billboard charts, it’s been covered by everyone from Olivia Newton John to the White Stripes, and Rolling Stone includes it on its prestigious 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
(click HERE to watch a clip of JOLENE on YouTube)
I like to choose songs that I think about when I am writing a new song. Sometimes I’ll look at a favorite song to study it’s structure, or examine how the writer got out of a key-change during the bridge, or sometimes simply to figure out what I like about it. With Dolly Parton’s Jolene, we have a perfect song. 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.”
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 very vulnerable place, which makes the song all the more relate-able. 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, but the last verse 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 – but great 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 up tidy 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 we know that the protagonist fears for life after her man, but we are left in the dark as far as what happens next.
I’ve been focusing mainly on the lyrics, but its the combination of the words with the music that make Jolene a perfect song. I love that its in a minor key, still a rarity for commercial country. The chorus and the verses are basically the same progression, but the melody changes and creates beautiful tension, so you are never tired of the chord pattern. And I love the eeriy, almost middle-eastern final chant of “Joleeenne” at the end. The drum beat, though, has probably been the biggest influence on me. With it’s almost country-disco “four-on-the-floor” feel, it uproots the traditional folk chords, and gives it a fresh shuffle that drives the song. I’ve opened my last two albums with songs using a Jolene-esque beat, and I’ve got a song or two in the works that employ more of the Jolene charm. I can’t get away from this song!