Jolene: Dolly Parton vs The White Stripes

This is a heartbreaking song about an ordinary woman who watches helplessly as her lover is slipping away, talking about another woman in his sleep: the stunning Jolene, with her flaming locks of auburn hair, ivory skin, emerald green eyes, smile like a breath of spring, and voice like summer rain… That’s a bit discouraging, indeed. So the desperate lovesick protagonist begs Jolene, who she knows she can’t compete with: “please don’t take my man… even though you can”. The song ends with this endless melancholic plea, leaving the audience wondering and hoping that this goddess Jolene chose another man, a single man. Well, what we really want might be for the protagonist to find the self-confidence to leave this guy who might already be cheating on her! But somehow, the strenght of the lyrics, the despair and sadness, end up making you feel for (and perhaps even relate to) this brokenhearted woman and her cruel fate. There’s a deep feeling of loneliness conveyed in both versions which will be the object of discussion today: Dolly Parton’s original country-folk version from the 1970’s and The White Stripes’ slow-garage-rock 2000 version.

Everyone knows Dolly Parton as the energetic charismatic blond country star with a southern charm and lots of personality. She is first and foremost an acclaimed songwriter. Coming from humble beginnings, she slowly but surely became an immensely popular star in the US, where she now has her own theme park! “Jolene” is one of her signature hits. Legend has it that she was inspired to write a song about a woman named “Jolene” after meeting a young fan named Jolene. And then Dolly added in the dramatic overtones, inspired by the fact that her husband was spending a lot of time with a pretty redhead who worked at the bank when they first got married. But they’ve been married for decades so it turned out well after all.

The White Stripes are one of many bands/artists to cover this song, but their version is rather unique and was well-received. It might be a bit strange to hear a man singing this song, but the feelings conveyed are so profoundly human at the core that you quickly forget and get into Jack’s intense desperate pleading (especially in this live version). Personally, I really like the slower rythm, which I think fits better with the suffering portrayed in this song. The White Stripes sound is harder than Dolly’s version, obviously, and Dolly’s clear voice differs from Jack’s raw husky voice. These are two very different sounds, but again, as is often the case with my original vs cover battles, maybe it’s the powerful lyrics that make the song in the end.