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  The Making of 'Answer Ballads'

1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song

In spring 2012, I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.

Original Song:
Composed: Parton
Released: 1973
Performed by: Dolly Parton

"And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don't know what he means to me, Jolene"

Answer Song:
"Jolene's Song"
Composed: Rotheray/Murphy
Released: 2013
Performed by: Julie Murphy & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"I don't want him-
I don't want him, Lord knows
All I ever needed was somewhere to swim
Somewhere the lilies may blow "


'Jolene' -a song which I love (see footnote 1) - has always sounded to me like a delusional 'low self-esteem' song. In this song, The Voice assumes that her man is attracted to Jolene, but presents no evidence to this effect. How does she know? (2) Maybe this is a self-hate fantasy? In fact, my immediate reaction was to suppose that both The Voice and Jolene herself were 'non-practising' gay women, desperately repressing their attraction to one another. I soon abandoned this idea, however. It felt impossible to write a serious song based on this conceit. Instead, I decided that The Voice was indeed delusional, but in a different way. Maybe Jolene was a physically attractive but highly serious woman who found it very difficult to deal with both the attentions of men and the jealousy of women. What would she do ? Obviously she would become a nun. Why not? This felt very clear to me. So I embarked on writing what I felt was a quite a heavy religious lyric, in which I shamelessly drew on other, more talented, people's work.(3)


Julie Murphy

Julie Murphy took my lyric and came up with a lovely piano-based treatment. Here’s how it sounded with the band playing along:

When I sent the lyrics for ‘Jolene’s Song’ to Julie, I mentioned a couple of songs that she might like to have a listen to; ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, by Neil Young, and ‘I Want You’ by Elvis Costello. The former, for its sense of epic drama, the latter for its slow-burning build-up of emotional intensity. I don’t think either of these tunes influenced Julie in her composition, but they certainly influenced me in the arrangement and production of the song. The dramatic combination of strings and tubular bells, overdubbed much later, was a reference to the Neil Young track, and I think this works pretty well, though possibly the bass and drums get a bit lost. From the Elvis Costello song, I tried to borrow the intense build throughout the track, and this maybe doesn’t come through quite so well. Anyway, here’s how it ended up sounding:



1 Especially the White Stripes version

2 I was wrong about this. When I'd finished the album, and allowed myself to listen to the original songs again, I found that apparently the man calls Jolene's name out in his sleep. But can she be sure? Maybe he's shouting 'gangrene' or 'James Dean', or even 'Peek Freans'?

3 Particularly that of Gerard Manley Hopkins