BY Christine Hand Jones
Today, I want to talk about Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Now, these two may seem like a strange pairing. Indeed, Dolly Parton said that she met Dylan “a few times” but “never felt any warmth,” thinking she might have “offended him.” She said, “I love his music but he’s a weird buckaroo” (Manzoor). So why talk about the two of them together today? Well, to help show you, let’s play a little game called “Dolly or Dylan.” I’ll show you a quote and your job is simple: tell me – is it from Dolly or Dylan? (See answers in footnotes).
1) It’s a rich man’s game / No matter what they call it / And you spend your life / Putting money in his wallet
2) Well, he hands you a nickel, and he hands you a dime / And he asks you with a grin, if you’re havin’ a good time / Then he fines you every time you slam the door
3) Your breath is sweet, your eyes are like two jewels in the sky / Your back is straight, your hair is smooth on the pillow where you lie.
4) 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.
5) Well a long winter’s wait from the window I watched / My friends they couldn’t have been kinder / And my schooling was cut as I quit in the spring / To marry John Thomas, a miner
6) Well, the winter came and the snow did fall / and the night was cold and still / And the rags we wore were not enough / and Joe he caught the chill
7) “…Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book…All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs.”
8) “…those old songs were the ones we heard the most. So it’s just embedded in me and it’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s the stuff that comes out of me the easiest.”
9) “I don’t do politics. I’m an entertainer.”
10) “I’ve never written a political song. Songs can’t save the world.”
The point of these comparisons is not just to show that these two artists have a lot in common, but that they have two important things in common: 1) Both Dolly and Dylan have maintained political ambiguity throughout their careers, even while making meaningful statements about social justice, and 2) Both Dolly and Dylan’s music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition.
The folk tradition, as each of these artists has embraced it, thrives on storytelling and resists harsh categorizations. In a folk song, the mysteries of human love, sorrow, and hatred take center stage. Folk songs tell stories of their time and place that cannot help but reflect a political context, yet the driving force of the folk song is not broad categories but minute details. And what I want to argue today is that there is a relationship between folk music and this unique ability on the part of both artists to simultaneously make important “political” statements in their songs while also coloring outside of all political party lines. Folk music is universal; folk storytelling is particular. Together, these folk song traits shaped both artists’ approach to politics.
Now it may seem odd to say that folk music could lead to political ambiguity. Thanks to the role of folk music in the social movements of the sixties, “folk” and “political” may almost seem synonymous. But despite his early ties to the socialist leanings of the folk revival and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement, Bob Dylan has stood apart from his folk music peers by refusing to declare political allegiances. In a room full of Dylan fans, I don’t need to recount all the ways Dylan has resisted political categorization, but here’s a little taste of his political evasiveness in “I Shall Be Free No. 10” from Another Side of Bob Dylan: “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree / I want everybody to be free / But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater / Move in next door and marry my daughter / You must think I’m crazy! / I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.”
Dolly Parton, too, has remained steadfastly ambiguous about politics. Dolly’s political ambiguity is reflected in the love that her fans from all political persuasions express for her, and she protects that love by outright refusing to take a side. Those who know her best have a word for it: “Dollitics.” Her relative and bodyguard, Brian Seaver, spoke of Dolly’s political evasions to Jad Abumrad, host of the 2019 podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America,” saying “It’s verbal judo. She’s the best interviewee on the planet. Nobody does interviews like Dolly. I’m very outspoken politically, but I try not to talk Dollitics at all.”
So Dolly protects her fans and her brand by refusing to make overt political statements, yet at the same time, she has written songs that raise awareness of social issues, particularly regarding the lives of women. Even as her song “9-5” was embraced as a political anthem in the fight for women’s and labor rights, Dolly herself resisted the term feminism. Shortly after the film, 9-5, was released, she told Rolling Stone, “A lot of people thought it was going to be women’s lib; I wouldn’t have been involved if I’d thought it was gonna’ be a sermon of some sort. Not that I’m not for rights for everybody, I’m just sayin’ I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing” (qtd in Hamessley 132, from Flippo, “Dolly Parton,” Rolling Stone 40). In 2016, however, Dolly said that she was “proud to be part of” 9-5‘s message of “preaching…equal pay for equal work” (qtd in Hamessley 132). Lydia Hamessley comments saying, “Despite her reluctance to define her beliefs as feminist, Dolly is committed to women’s rights even though she always contextualizes this within the rights of all people” (132). This commitment to a universal message of inclusion apart from politics has characterized Dolly’s stance on women’s rights as well as her statements on marriage equality and her response to the Black Lives Matter movement, when she said, “Of course Black Lives Matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones?” (qtd in Domonoske).
So both of these artists resist political labels, while at the same time writing songs of social importance that call their audience to compassion and understanding for their fellow man, and I believe that reading Dolly Parton alongside Bob Dylan helps to make sense of that seeming paradox for these two artists. Read side-by-side, the common factor here is each artist’s deep commitment to folk music as the foundation of all their work.
Let’s talk about folk music first, with a little snippet from the aforementioned “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” As the song continues, Dylan makes a meta-reference to the music itself: “Now you’re probably wondering by now / Just what this song is all about / What’s probably got you baffled more / Is what this thing here is for.” “It’s nothing / It’s something I learned over in England.” Here, Dylan’s humorous reference to a British folk heritage undermines any faith one may have had in the music’s deeper significance. But the music, of course, is significant.
In Dylan’s Greenwich village folk scene, folk music was connected to “songs of persuasion,” which R. Serge Denisoff defines as “propaganda songs,” in which the folk instruments and style provided a simple vehicle for the lyrics (6). But of course, the music is never merely a vehicle. At a basic level, the simplicity of folk styles conveyed the message of an unpretentious music – a music of the people, not of the elite. So, even when the music was meant to take a backseat to the lyrics, the music mattered. This idea of music as a way to carry political ideas forms the framework for Ilias Ben Mna’s analysis of “country music with anti-oppressive themes,” which he says “can serve as a mass-accessible vehicle” for “poignant and subversive commentary” (Ben Mna 1-2). He counts Parton’s “9-5” as an example, noting that with its folk-influenced melody, “Dolly Parton’s anthem provides a gateway…directing the rural and urban poor against a patriarchal capitalism” (Ben Mna 12). So on one level, folk and country music conveys social and political messages effectively, simply because it is accessible and relatable.
But on another level, folk music communicates effectively because folk melodies are cross-cultural and universal. Because folk music is often modal, the melodies revolve around a five-note pentatonic major or minor scale, a scale that occurs in every mode (do, re, mi, so, la). Some music scholars see in the “complementary and mutually dependent” folk melodies a communal alternative to the hierarchy, dominance, and hustle culture of capitalism (Shepherd 109), asserting that “pentatonic tunes…are not trying, like Western man, to ‘get somewhere’ but live in an existential present, affirming an identity with nature, even with the cosmos” (Mellers 32). Furthermore, the pentatonic scale can be considered the most “natural” scale because it comes “most directly from…the fifths and fourths of the [natural] harmonic series” (Mellers 32). From this perspective, the foundation of folk music is not just “for the people”; it’s derived from nature itself. Pentatonic scales immediately establish a deep musical connection that cuts across time and geography in a way that other musical styles simply cannot.
But if folk music has this kind of power, what makes Dylan or Dolly special? Dolly’s reliance on modes and the “old world” sound set her apart from her country counterparts, but Dylan’s use of modes was hardly unique in his 60s folk circles. Why wouldn’t every song based on a folk tune move the listener as Dylan’s and Dolly’s have? To answer that, we need to look at the lyrical content of folk songs and at how both Dylan and Dolly maintain a connection to folk tradition in their writing that prioritizes storytelling over sermonizing.
Of the types of old-world songs that influenced both Dolly and Dylan, ballads are at the top of the list. We know that Dylan was highly influenced by ballads. He stole/borrowed some of their melodies outright and he has talked at length about the effect of these songs on his life. To name only one example, Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” is based on the murder ballad, “Pretty Polly.” Likewise, Dolly borrowed the melody for “Little Sparrow” from the folk tune “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” and its subject matter from the ballad, “Come all ye fair and tender maidens.” Dolly learned the old ballads from her mother, who used to sing them. In Dolly’s words, “Mama told us that’s how people used to carry the news, they used to write it in songs, carry it from village to village… A lot of the stuff in those old-world songs were true stories that happened” (qtd in Hamessley 68).
Lydia Hamessley describes ballads as “stories of a far-off time…filled with the supernatural, fantastical settings, bravery and deceit, and love gone wrong, often in tragic, violent, and even gory ways” (67). Speaking of violence and gore, the murder ballad — a ballad that, you guessed it, tells the story of a murder, deserves its own mention for how it influenced both writers. Frank Mehring explains, “With their origins in seventeenth century Europe, murder ballads have become part of American folk music pronounced in the hillbilly music, Appalachian and…blues traditions” (Mehring 108). Importantly, a large number of these murder ballads describe women being murdered, usually by a lover, and often in situations involving pregnancy or suspected cheating. “Pretty Polly” is a great example – Polly is led off to a lonesome place by her lover just so he can kill her. These ballads demonstrate what Frank Mehring calls ‘“inherently ‘intermedial powers’” that “penetrate both public and political spheres, offering creative and self-reflexive responses to social realities” (108). In other words, a murder ballad is never just about recounting grisly details of a killing but is a way for for the singers and listeners to reflect on important social issues – for example, with Dylan, racism or poverty. And if you want a wonderful, concise discussion of murder ballads and Bob Dylan, I strongly recommend the recent episode of Laura Tenschert’s “Definitely Dylan” podcast, where she does a deep dive through Dylan’s early murder ballads. Finally, Hamessley explains that ballads are “usually sung…in a dispassionate way with little to no moralizing. The fine grain of ballads is in the dialogue and descriptions of actions, not in explaining motives or exploring emotions” (67). Hamessley’s last point is worth reiterating: ballads are not about morals or motives, but details and descriptions. So although other songwriters in the 60s folk revival scene were influenced by ballads, where they used their songs to moralize, Dylan and Dolly manage to avoid that trap.
One of Dylan’s earliest attempts at a murder ballad, “The Death of Emmett Till,” shows the fledgling songwriter still finding his way, with the heavy-handed moral: “But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give / We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.” Two years after he wrote it, he called it a “bullshit song,” saying his “reasons and motives behind it were phony” (qtd in Heylin 87-88). Dylan later moved past such sermonizing, eventually outpacing his topical-songwriting peers by moving to the heart of the stories of the marginalized and avoiding the more overt, even propagandist tactics of his fellow songwriters.
One such example is “Oxford Town,” written in response to a Broadside competition to write about James Meredith’s enrollment in the University of Mississippi (Heylin 131). Betsey Bowden calls Phil Ochs’ song on the topic “inflammatory journalism,” “a musical editorial,” in contrast with Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” which “uses topicality as a springboard for artistic complexity in performance and for political effectiveness” (13). The key to that complexity and effectiveness is the song’s storytelling, which provides specific details of the Oxford Town experience and allows the narrative to remain unresolved.
Time and again in Dylan’s ballads, he allows a story’s details to speak louder than a predetermined message. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” modeled after the ballad, “Lord Randal,” takes “show don’t tell” to a whole new level with its barrage of vivid, sometimes disturbing images. The harrowing “Ballad of Hollis Brown” delivers no moral in its story of Brown’s mass family murder/suicide. “North Country Blues” issues no condemnation for the deserting husband or sympathy for the jilted wife. Instead, the details immerse the listener in the story and allow the listener to decide. And in songs that do have a moral of some sort, the villain is not an individual so much as it is broken society, as in “Only a Pawn in their Game,” or a failed justice system, as in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol.” And this list only scratches the surface – we lack the time to go into “Dear Landlord,” “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” or “Hurricane,” but in all of Dylan’s ballads, he tells the stories of the marginalized, he pushes the boundaries of the narrative form, he leaves things unresolved, he identifies with the “villains” or the “other,” and he repeatedly shows his audience, “I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide” (“With God on Our Side”).
Dolly, too, resists stereotypes and simple portrayals or solutions in her ballads. She tells complex, often dark stories that let the listener in on the real lives inside. In “Daddy’s Moonshine Still,” “Joshua,” and “Robert,” she “invoke[s] negative stereotypical images of Appalachia, such as the moonshiner, the mountain hermit, or incest,” but, Lydia Hamessley explains, “Dolly does not move into parody or ridicule in them” (58). Instead, Dolly uses the ballad to sympathize and humanize these figures.
Even Dolly’s mega-hit, “Jolene,” which strays from the typical ballad formula, succeeds largely because of the ways it borrows from balladry. It uses that “old world” modal harmony to tell a story. The song’s account of Jolene, with her “flaming…hair,” “ivory skin” and “emerald” eyes evokes the lush descriptions of women from traditional ballads. But what makes “Jolene” stand out is the way it strays from the country music formula of the “other woman” song. Unlike Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” “Jolene” is not a song about getting revenge or sitting at home crying while the husband cheats. The narrator of “Jolene” takes the situation into her own hands, treats the cheating woman like a fellow human being, and has a talk with her, woman-to-woman. Dolly preserves the humanity of both the cheating woman and the cheated-on narrator, even as the ambiguous ending leaves the tale forever unresolved.
Dolly applies the same sensitivity and humanity to her many other ballads, songs that often delve into the difficult lives of women and do not shy away from such controversial topics as unwed pregnancy, suicide, and abortion. Dolly has called these her “sad-ass songs” – and she has a lot of them. But more than being merely sentimental, these ballads “reflect the complexity of women’s lives without seeming to take an overt political stand” (Hamessley 131).
“Daddy Come and Get Me” is a prime example of a “sad-ass song” that sheds light on unjust circumstances. In it, a woman calls for her father to come get her out of a mental institution that her husband put her in just “to get [her] out of his way” so that he could have an affair. Dolly wrote the song with her aunt Dorothy Jo, and it was based on more than one true story of people they knew. Dolly says, “It was a situation that nobody knew how to handle” (Parton, Songteller 87). In Dolly’s song, we never learn how the situation is handled. We do not know if the father ever comes for his wrongly institutionalized daughter; we are left only with her “looking out through…iron bars.”
In another song about the plight of women, “Down from Dover,” Dolly paints the sad picture of a jilted, pregnant young woman through poignant details:
I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret
I have tried concealing
When he left he promised me he’d be back
By the time it was revealing
The sun behind a cloud just casts the crawling shadow
Over the fields of clover
And time is running out for me I wish
That he would hurry down from Dover
In true “sad-ass song” fashion, the baby dies at the end of the song, and the woman is left alone. Dolly needs no sermon on the sexual double-standard for men and women; she simply lets the details give the message.
Another particularly moving song is Dolly’s “The Bridge.” Like so many of Dolly’s other sad ballads, this one is modal – Mixolydian – and it unfolds its story of love through specific, lovely details of the moon and the meadow, so that the last verse and chorus come as a shock:
Tonight, while standing on the bridge
My heart is beating wild
To think that you could leave me here
With our unborn child
My feet are moving slowly
Closer to the edge
Here is where it started
And here is where I’ll end it…
In some live performances, Dolly finishes the line and the slant rhyme with “…on the bridge,” but the official recording leaves the ending unresolved. All these sad songs bear a direct relationship to the sad ballads that Dolly grew up hearing and singing. “It was so lonesome when Mama would sing,” Dolly says (Hammesley 68). Nowhere is that sadness more acute than in the subgenre of folk songs known as murder ballads.
Though most of Dolly’s sad songs were not precisely murder ballads, their focus on women’s lives, particularly on women who find themselves in the same situations as the unlucky women in the old ballads, allows Dolly to rewrite the endings of those traditional songs and provide women with some empowerment, or if not power, at least pity. “The Bridge” is a great example. Its suspenseful narrative structure and haunting music leads Lydia Hamessley to call the song “as gripping as a murder ballad” (148). Thus Dolly takes the usual expectations from murder ballads and subverts them to focus on the female experience. In the murder ballad “J.J. Sneed,” which she wrote with her aunt Dorothy Jo, a jilted woman is the one who does the killing:
The good old days are over as we stand here in the rain.
J.J., I’m gonna shoot you now I hope you’ll feel no pain.
I hear hoofbeats of the horses and the posse’s on my trail.
I guess I’ll join you soon, but for now, J.J., farewell
Hamessley notes that in this song and others like it, “Dolly modeled ways for women to flip established gender scripts and reimagine their own participation from a place of power and authority” (139).
By reversing gender roles in murder ballads, Dolly Parton continued the tradition of Black, female blues singers like Victoria Spivey, who made a career out of singing murder ballads, which Frank Mehring says “functioned as a musical outlet to carve out a role that was far from the stereotype of the passive female victim” (114). So for Dolly Parton, as for other female songwriters who came before her, traditional folk music tropes provided a framework to challenge the patriarchy while dressing that challenge in the guise of a good story.
In the “Dollitics” episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, host Jad Abumrad tries to get Dolly to speak out against President Trump or to at least make a definitive statement about him, but she refuses. Finally, she says, “Why don’t we pray for the President? If we’re having all these problems, let’s just… why don’t we just pray for Mr. President?” Growing up as I did in an evangelical subculture where “praying for the president” was code for very different things depending on whether that president was a Democrat or a Republican, my initial response to such a phrase is skepticism, but Dolly’s history bears witness to her sincerity. And it made me think of another quote about the president, this time from Bob Dylan: “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” (“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”). These may seem like very different sentiments, but they both express an important truth: the President is human too. Perhaps it is naive to think that folk songs can help us to better see one another in our common humanity, but Dylan and Dolly’s work, steeped in the storytelling traditions of the folk ballad, gives me hope that there may be a way for us to view one another in our universality and our particularity.
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