Today I learned about a man who was imprisoned in South Africa for his involvement as a freedom fighter trying to end Apartheid. He was incarcerated in the cell next to Nelson Mandela. Over the years, they were beaten and tortured together.
After many years, things began to change in the prison, and the commander of the prison allowed Mandela to play music over the loud speakers for the prisoners.
His favorite artist to play? Dolly Parton.
His favorite song to play? Jolene.
This man described Jolene as a song about the fear of loss. He said it resonated with the prisoners because they were fearful of losing their lives and their families. But it also resonated with the guards because their country was changing, and they were fearful of losing the power they had always known.
In the world of Country Music there is a sub-genre of songs about “the other woman.” For years, that genre concentrated on the story of one woman threatening another if she even thought about messing around with her man. (My favorite from the podcast was “Fist City”). Jolene, written in a Dorian Minor key, may have been the first (at least the most famous) where a woman begs another to step aside.
I loved the description of the repeated guitar riff at the beginning. They said it sounds like a woman pacing the floor trying to decide what she is going to do. And it does.
The song doesn’t have an ending. Parton sings that her happiness is dependent on whatever choice Jolene is going to make. But we never learn what that choice is. We are left to end the song ourselves.
The woman is a music writing genius.