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Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton by Professor Lydia R. Hamessley

In mid-August 2020, Dolly Parton was in the news. This is not unusual, but the headlines were a bit bigger this time because, unlike her usual practice, Dolly had made a political statement. In a prominent interview for Billboard,[1] she spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement saying, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” The fact that Dolly made this statement was notable since it ran counter to her familiar assertion: “I am not political, and I refuse to get caught up in political things.”[2]

Throughout her career Dolly has made a point never to speak about politics, and she usually sidesteps political questions with a good-natured, self-deprecating wisecrack. Saying that she has fans on all points of the political continuum, Dolly’s goal is to avoid offending or alienating anyone. Her ability to bridge the stark divides in the United States was the center of the award-winning WNYC podcast “Dolly Parton’s America.”[3] As I write in my book, Dolly’s fans include people of all faiths, classes, gender, sexual, racial, ethnic, and political identities, and at her concerts they all “happily co-exist in their communal focus on Dolly.” Dolly’s appeal across many demographics is the result of her bubbling optimism, her insistence that she loves everyone without judgment, and her refusal to wade into political waters.

For example, in 1978, when a Playboy magazine interviewer asked Dolly if she supported the Equal Rights Amendment, she deflected the question: “Equal rights? I love everybody.”[4] Rather than making political statements, Dolly uses her songs about women, like “Eagle When She Flies,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” and “When Possession Gets Too Strong,” to express what she values in relationships and what she thinks about situations and systems of injustice regarding women’s lives. To illustrate, let’s take a look at a couple of songs.

Dolly has stated she wrote “Just Because I’m a Woman” (1968) in response to her husband’s reaction when she told him she’d had sex with someone else before she married him. Dolly said this broke his heart, but she thought, “Well, my goodness, what’s the big damn deal?”[5] In her classic country song, Dolly gently but firmly confronts her man about his hypocrisy. She not only declares “my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman,” but also asks him to “think of all the shame you might have brought somebody else.” Dolly’s argument is not a plea for forgiveness or absolution. Rather it is a statement of fact and a condition of the continuation of the relationship: “listen and understand” and “just let me tell you this, then we’ll both know where we stand.” Dolly responds not only to her own husband, but she speaks more generally about the hypocrisy of the sexual double standard in the mid-1960s.

Another example, “Down From Dover” (1970 & 2001), is a song about a young unmarried woman, pregnant and abandoned by her lover. After her parents turn her out in shame, the young woman finds work at a farm “taking care of an old lady.” With no companionship or help, she delivers the baby alone. Dolly’s lyrics eloquently illustrate the heart-rending scene of the birth, the baby’s death, and the young woman’s realization, made clear through her dead little girl, that the baby’s father has forsaken her: “dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover.” “Down From Dover” is a strophic ballad in which one verse follows another with no chorus to interrupt the hopelessness of the situation. The narrative spins out in strings of images through two limited melodic lines that are more like chant than song. These repeated musical lines are unrelenting and embody the young woman’s plight and ultimate fate: each line starts anew only to fall again.

Country music radio in the 1970s was squeamish about the implications of “Down From Dover.” Dolly said they would not play the song “because it was so suggestive and it was about a pregnant girl and it was so against what country radio was at that time.”[6] The country music industry would not endorse such an explicit, critical, and sympathetic portrayal of the tragic results of a young woman’s exile for a sexual transgression. By humanizing the situation in a song that evoked traditional ballads, Dolly exposed and denounced the cultural views of the time that led to such unfair treatment of women.

Dolly explored a similar scenario in her song “The Bridge” (1968). The song begins with the chorus: a young, pregnant woman stands on a bridge reminiscing about how she and her lover used to meet there. Rather than giving away the rest of the story here, I advise readers to experience this powerful and unconventional song for themselves.

In Unlikely Angel, I explore the range and depth of Dolly’s vast catalogue of songs from my perspective as a musicologist, foregrounding the nuances of Dolly’s musical practice—her vocabulary of melody, harmony, and form—as well as her songs’ common threads of imagery, situations, emotions, and ideas. Over her 60-year career, Dolly has covered a lot of ground in her songs: love, heartbreak, death, inspiration, spirituality, poverty, and social injustices. Despite her reticence to “get caught up in political things,” many of her songs reflect her views about the complexities of women’s lives. So, it is not necessary to ask Dolly if she is a feminist. The answer lies in her songs.

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton has an associated Spotify Playlist with all the songs by Dolly that are discussed in the book.

[1] Dolly Parton, quoted in Melinda Newman, “Dolly Parton Steers Her Empire Through the Pandemic—and Keeps It Growing,” Billboard (August 15, 2020), https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/country/9432581/dolly-parton-country-power-players-billboard-cover-story-interview-2020.

[2] Dolly Parton quoted in Nicole Carroll, “Dolly Parton: ‘The whole magic about me is that I look artificial, but I’m totally real,’” USA TODAY (August 27, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/life/women-of-the-century/2020/08/27/dolly-parton-growing-up-tennessee-faith-family-fans/3387750001/.

[3] “Dolly Parton’s America,” hosted by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad, https://www.npr.org/podcasts/765024913/dolly-parton-s-america.

[4] Dolly Parton quoted in Lawrence Grobel, “Dolly Parton: A Candid Conversation with the Curvaceous Queen of Country Music,” Playboy (October 1978): 110.

[5] Dolly Parton quoted in Jancee Dunn, “Dolly Parton,” Rolling Stone 934 (October 30, 2003), 55.

[6] Dolly Parton quoted in Bill DeMain, “Dolly Parton,” In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 33-34.

Lydia Hamessley is a professor of music at Hamilton College where she teaches courses in country music, music and film, and early music. She has published articles on women and banjos in 19th-century America; Appalachian murder ballads; and Peggy Seeger. She appeared in the BBC2 documentary, Dolly Parton: Here I Am, 2019, which aired in the U.S. as Biography: Dolly on A&E, 2020. She is a clawhammer banjo player and enjoys cycling tours in the UK and Ireland. Follow her @lydiahamessley. Hamessley’s book was released on 12 October, and is available for order here.

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