Whatever happened to Jolene, Lucille and Roxanne?
Ever wonder what happened to Dolly Parton’s Jolene? Or The Police’s Roxanne? Or Elton John’s Daniel?
A new album of so-called answer songs is heading your way to tell you just that and more. The brainchild of British musician David Rotheray, former lead guitarist with The Beautiful South, “Answer Ballads” takes some of the most famous songs in popular music and updates the listener on the later years of the principal subject.
As well as Jolene, Roxanne and Daniel, it includes Mrs Jones from Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs Jones”, Maggie from Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae”, Marie from Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and both Mrs Avery and her daughter Sylvia from Dr Hook’s “Sylvia’s Mother”.
“I was amazed nobody had done it before,” Rotheray told me when I rang him in his Yorkshire home. There appear only to have been individual answer songs before – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, for example.
Rotheray got the idea for a theme album from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, a play that follows the story of two minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” after they leave the stage, so to speak. “Answer Ballads” does the same. It is contemporary singer-songwriter folk in often gentle tones but with darker social commentary.
Take “Marie’s Song”, for example. In the original, “Memphis, Tennessee”, rocker Chuck Berry is dialing long-distance information to get a number for 6-year old Marie, who it turns out is his daughter by an estranged wife or lover. In Rotheray’s reply, sung by Josienne Clarke, Marie is now grown up, seemingly empty and certainly in Memphis all alone. Her father never did manage to get in touch.
The protagonist in “Daniel’s Song”, meanwhile, is old and distant from his younger brother, the one who bemoaned his departing flight to Spain so beguilingly in John’s “Daniel”. Daniel in old-age is palpably guilty about abandoning his little brother, part of a bittersweet rejection of home. He wants forgiveness, but it is not clear he is getting it.
The lyrics for the answer songs were written by Rotheray, who also produced them. The singing and most of the music writing comes from a variety of collaborators, including folk singers Eliza Carthy and Bella Hardy.
Rotheray said that coming up with lyrics was made easier by the fact that much of the groundwork had gone before. “You have a really (good) background for the story,” he said.
Among the easiest were the answers to Parton’s “Jolene”, in which the singer begs a beautiful woman not to steal her man, and “Roxanne” in which Sting tells a lady of the night he will protect her and that she does not need to “walk the streets for money”. In the answer song, a rather tired Jolene basically says she didn’t want anything to do with Parton’s man anyway.
“I always thought the Dolly Parton character was deluding herself,” Rotheray said.
As for Roxanne, the answer song drips with derision about a man telling a woman what to do and trying to keep her for himself. “What did she say to him? I bet she told him to get lost,” Rotheray said.
“Answer Ballads” is released digitally and on CD by Navigator Records on October 14.
(This is an edited version of an article I wrote for my main employer, Reuters)