Jolene: One Man Away From Poverty

-Dolly Parton-

-Dolly Parton-

Dolly Parton’s 1974 release Jolene has been covered, copied, and sung many times since. The song is a passionate plea from one woman begging another to leave her man alone. It is a story that highlights the perils of living in a patriarchal, male-dominated world.

I’m begging of you
Please don’t take my man

Many women are economically dependent on their male partners. These women may have children, and may have a difficult time supporting these children without their husband’s financial help. As former chair of the Women and Poverty Task for the National Organization for Women, Beverley McDonald says most women are still one man away from poverty. If your man leaves, you and your children will be poor. Though Parton does not have any children of her own, she understands the threat of poverty. After all, she was the fourth of twelve children growing up, and described herself as “dirt poor”.

In order to avoid poverty, many women must engage in the taxing and thankless task of keeping their man.

What does keeping a man entail?

For one, it means surrendering to the fact that one’s man is free to decide to leave at any time, that he is not committed to the relationship unless it continues on his terms, that he will never permanently decide to stay, and that you and the kids will forever be financially dependent on him.

Keeping a man means catering to him by being his f’k toy, cooking his favorite meals, cleaning his house, and satisfying him in whatever way he asks—regardless of your desires or needs.

Despite all your efforts to keep a man, you may find him desirous of straying anyway, particularly if a p-compliant woman comes along and pays some attention to him, as Jolene in the song does:

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

Jolene’s beauty and submissiveness (as evidenced by her soft voice) are the only qualities she is using to lure the subject’s man away. Hence, those qualities appear to be the ones most necessary for the subject to keep her man.

Since the subject’s man is desirous of straying, keeping him will require a change in strategy. It does not mean asking him to grow up and stop throwing his life away. In fact, keeping him does not involve holding him responsible for his desire to stray. Instead, the best strategy is to convince the woman he desires to leave him alone. She, and not he, is the only person who will be able to prevent him from leaving the subject and the kids financially destitute. As the song says:

My happiness depends on you
and whatever you decide to do, Jolene

This is what life will offer a woman who depends on a man. This is the story that the song Jolene tells– the horrors of total dependency on a man.

Because keeping her man is the only way for the subject of this song to avoid poverty and survive, she must bargain for her sustenance with another woman. Women often have to compete for men, as Jolene and the subject of this song do. When women’s energy is focused on obtaining men, and competing against one another for the crumbs that men drop, women are unable to relate to one another with true gyn/affection. This is a tragic loss for womankind.

Dolly Parton explains writing this song in this interview:

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.”

Interestingly, Dolly Parton downplays the threat of the other woman in her own life. She turns it into a joke with her husband that he is being pursued by the bank teller. She places none of the agency of the flirtation on him, and she does not expect him to shun the bank teller’s advances. As she says, “it’s an innocent song all around”.

This song has been covered many times. For example, Jack White of the White Stripes covers the song here.

I experience his cover of this song as completely ignorant of its meaning. If Jack White’s man leaves, he will not be financially destitute. There is no sex-based hierarchy in the song as he sings it. His version is meaningless.

However, I do quite enjoy this version by Ellie Goulding

About smash
Women's liberationist.

8 Responses to Jolene: One Man Away From Poverty

  1. FCM says:

    heartbreaking! i love dolly parton. this song is totally backwards, as in not empowered, not sexxxay fauxminist girl-power. it is womens reality, working women, poor women, working-poor women, and even wealthy women experience this. good on dolly for telling it like it is. and yes, jack white’s version is completely meaningless. what a dick. i actually really like the white stripes, but this is exactly the kind of shit you have to either put up with, not notice, or ignore, when you are a music fan. its kind of like going to church to enjoy the incense and candles (or whatever) but where the mass isnt in english. its the only way i ever liked church. i really dont want to know what they are saying, or whats behind it, or anything. so sue me, i like it! 😛

    • smash says:

      Thanks for your reply, FCM. I love Dolly Parton too, and I love that she was able to tell it like it is.

      I also find myself using selective attention; there’s really no other way to enjoy music/movies/culture.

  2. Saw the White Stripes at the Empty Bottle in Chicago years ago. Didn’t like them, really (I was invited by a fan). Jack White seemed like a real dickbag. But, Meg. She’s an enigma… she should start her own band. It was still a pretty good show, though…

    I love Dolly Parton, so much. This song is haunting, and sad.

    One man away from poverty. I’ve always been there, my whole life- the men just take turns owning me.

  3. smash says:

    Undercover Punk sent me an interesting link about Dolly Parton that I’ll share here. If you skip to the end, you’ll see a discussion of Parton making compromises in order succeed in the patriarchy, as well as her long time gyn/affective friendship with Judy Ogle.

    Here’s a quote, “I am talking about Dolly Parton here because she is an example of a woman who has had to customize her intimacy in extreme ways to negotiate a superstar career in a patriarchal culture that makes it extremely difficult for any woman to realize even small dreams.”

  4. Gappy says:

    Over here from Feministe.

    I love Dolly Parton and always felt she was saying something deeper with this song. That it was not just about a woman terrified of losing her love.

    Have you heard, ‘Your Ol’ Handy Man’ by her? The lyrics sound ridiculously old fashioned now, but, ‘Your woman’s gettin tired of being your ol’ handy man’ about how she’s sick of doing everything around the house, must have been quite subversive for its place and time.

  5. FCM says:

    wow! what an excellent read by carolyn gage. thanks for the link.

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