Singing Jolene? Breathe when Dolly breathes

When you want help to improve your long distance running technique, you hire Mo Farah, not Usain Bolt. True?

If you want to improve your ability to maintain a long  e vowel sound over a long distance, you hire Dolly Parton as your personal trainer.

Stay with Dolly, to the last millisecond, as she sings the long, long e of Jolene. Breathe. Pace yourself. Don’t run ahead of Dolly to reach the n before she does. Stay with Dolly. Stay on the vowel. Ready? Get set. Go:

Singing Jolene is a perfect warm up whenever you need to extend your vowels to suit a song. If you can go the distance with Dolly, keeping your e pure, rich and strong every step of the way, then your breaths are in good shape.

How does Dolly do it? Notice:

  • Dolly smiles a lot when she sings (Amy Winehouse used that technique too). Smiling keeps your vowels open.
  • Dolly sings on the vowel. Her focus is the vowel. She’s not running to catch the n. She’s happy staying with the vowel for as long as the song asks her to.
  • If you watch Dolly in the video, you’ll see her take a breath after the second Jolene of each chorus. That intake of breath gives her the power to sing to the end of the fourth and longest Jolene of the chorus, comfortably and richly, with plenty of breath to spare. A lot of singers who cover the song miss that breath opportunity and struggle to reach the last, most powerful Jolene.
  • Where does Dolly take a breath in the line “With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green” ?  After eyes. That’s surprising. The logical break in her description of Jolene would be after skin. Dolly knows she needs plenty of breath to power through the long e of green at the end of the line. Her rhyme scheme dictates that the last word of the verse either is Jolene or rhymes strongly with Jolene, to keep ‘that hussy’ Jolene in the audience’s mind. She chooses her break point to suit the song . 
  • The additional benefit of an unusual break in the line? It attracts her audience’s attention to the description of Jolene’s emerald eyes, and to the subtle emotional associations of the word green. Green is the traditional colour of envy. Dolly wrote the song, so she chose the colour of Jolene’s eyes to benefit her song. Jolene’s eyes had to be green or maybe aquamarine to fit the song.

Dolly structured her song around the recurring motif of the name Jolene. She chose Jolene, rather than Jane, Josie or Jemima for good reason. Jolene has the long e vowel between two smooth consonants – the l and the n – which frame the vowel clearly. It’s satisfying to sing and satisfying to hear.

The internal rhyme scheme of the song depends on the e of Jolene rhyming, closely and clearly, with please, green, compete, keep, sleep, means, me and easily. The repeating layers of clear, long e vowels build the emotional power of the song. An echo of Jolene, the  temptress, is present in each of the words where the long e appears.

You might be interested in Ruby Rose Fox’s cover of Jolene. She’s changed some things – the tempo of the song, for example – but she’s left that powerful long e well alone:

You don’t need to borrow Dolly’s rhinestones or blonde wig to do justice to Jolene, but you do need to sing the long e with a full-bodied sound. Smile. Breathe. Think of Dolly.

© Sing Better English, 2014


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