Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' Still Haunts Singers The singer's 1973 hit has been covered more than any of her other songs. She says it remains popular in part because of how universal it is: Everyone relates to the singer's sense of inadequacy.


Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' Still Haunts Singers

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She's a redheaded, honky-tonk heartbreaker, Jolene. And in Dolly Parton's classic country song, she's angling to steal another woman's man. Over the past year, we've been exploring famous American fictional characters. And today for our series called "In Character," Tom Vitale goes back to the night "Jolene" was born.

TOM VITALE: When Dolly Parton started her career on a country music television show in the 1960s, she says she used to sign autographs every night after the show.

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Country Music Singer): One night I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl. She was probably eight years old at the time. And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, and beautiful green eyes. And she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph. And I said, well, you're just the prettiest little thing I've ever seen. I said, what is your name? And she said, Jolene. And I said, well, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. I said, that is pretty, I said, that sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. I'm begging of 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 smile is like a breath of spring. Your voice is soft like summer rain, And I cannot compete with you, Jolene.

VITALE: Parton says she got the story for her song from another redhead in her life at the time, a bank teller who was giving Dolly's new husband a little more interest than he had coming.

Ms. PARTON: She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kind of like a running joke between us when I was saying, hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money. So it's really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one.

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Jolene. I'm begging of you please don't take my man.

VITALE: When Dolly Parton released "Jolene" in 1973, it became one of her first hit singles. The lyrics are only 200 words, and a lot of those are repeated. But Parton says that very simplicity, along with the song's haunting melody, is what makes the character of Jolene memorable.

Ms. PARTON: It's a great chord progression, people love that "Jolene" lick. It's as much a part of the song almost as the song. And because it's just the same word over and over, even a first grader or a baby can sing, "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene." It's like, how hard can that be?

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Mr. JACK WHITE (Lead singer, The White Stripes): (Singing) Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Please don't take him just because you can.

VITALE: "Jolene" has been covered by more than 30 singers over the years and in several languages around the world. Jack White's emotional rendition has been a staple at the White Stripes concerts for years.

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Mr. WHITE: (Singing) And eyes of emerald green.

VITALE: Jack White says the character of Jolene has fascinated him for a long time.

Mr. JACK WHITE (Singer, The White Stripes): I love the name. First off, I thought that was an interesting name when I started hearing that song as a teenager. And I guess later on, as a songwriter, I started to think about names that started with J, like that, that could be used. They're almost like accusatory, like Jezebel. Jolene.

VITALE: "Jolene" launched country singer Mindy Smith's career five years ago when Dolly Parton said it was her favorite version of the song.

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Ms. MINDY SMITH (Country Singer): (Singing) He talks about you in his sleep. There's nothing I can do to keep from crying when he calls your name, Jolene.

VITALE: Mindy Smith says she could relate to the vulnerability of the woman pleading with Jolene.

Ms. SMITH: I think the main character is really the person singing about Jolene. Jolene's a mess, you know. She steals things.

VITALE: Dolly Parton says "Jolene" is so popular because everyone can relate to her feelings of inadequacy, competing with that tall redhead in the bank who was after Dolly's husband.

Ms. PARTON: Because she had everything I didn't, like legs, you know. She was about six feet tall and had all the stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have. So no matter how beautiful a woman may be, you're always threatened by certain - you're always threatened by other women, period.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) I'm begging of you, please don't take my man. Jolene. Jolene...

BLOCK: You can hear and watch "Jolene" covers from over the years at

(Soundbite of song "Jolene")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. Please don't take him just because you can. Jolene. Jolene.

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