I’ve just turned 17, halfway through my last year of high school. It’s 1978 and my dad is back from three months working in America, in San Jose, California. He works for IBM, and that’s where their West Coast headquarters is. No-one’s calling it Silicon Valley yet – at least, no-one outside the valley’s computer industry insiders. Among his few souvenirs, he pulls from his suitcases a handful of LPs, artists he’d been hearing on his favourite KFAT, a local San Jose radio station. Waylon and Willie, Emmylou Harris, The Dusty Chaps …
It’s not as if I rushed to listen to them. I didn’t have much time for country music. I was a self-declared feminist, starting to explore rock’s history and the new punk bands. I thought country music hokey, alien and insufferably mainstream, and unlike Dad, I wasn’t nostalgic for San Jose. We’d had a brief family reunion there over the school holidays and it had been a letdown, made worse by an eager familiarity built, as such things so often are, on a persistent if little understood lyric, and a lingering voice (Burt Bacharach’s and Dionne Warwick’s ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’). San Jose was a cultural desert. Even a teenager from the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne had been able to see that. The proximity of San Francisco was the only real attraction, and even then, I’d been given little freedom to explore on my own, unlike my twin brother who, after much pleading, was let loose in the Castro to see Bob Dylan’s epic movie, Renaldo and Clara.
So when I checked out Dad’s records, the only one deemed worth a listen was Emmylou Harris’s. I knew something of her history with Gram Parsons, and she’d put her delicate stamp on Dylan’s Desire, one of my brother’s treasures, a regular on our turntable. There was no embarrassing country glitz to Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. The cover was a moody nightscape, and a portrait of Harris barely made-up, veiled by her long dark hair. The songs were mainly ballads, some wistful, some breezy, some upbeat. But one track stood out. I lifted and repositioned the needle, over and over again …
‘To Daddy’ was a short song. A handful of verses, a middle-eight to signal the climax, a decisive final flourish, over almost before it begins. ‘Momma never seemed to miss the finer things of life …’ starts Emmylou. There’s a gentle yearning in her voice, as it floats above the barest guitar. She launches into a loving tribute to womanly stoicism, devotion to home and family, building a portrait of the kind of woman who ‘didn’t mind just staying home’. As the list of unremarkable sacrifices grows, we’re reassured she doesn’t mind: ‘If she did, she never did say so to Daddy.’ After a few repetitions, a sentimental ache takes hold. It will take a while, a few plays, to hear that uneasy qualification hiding easily in the opening words, as if just slipped in to help it scan.
The final verse is not the child’s voice, but a woman’s, heard by a daughter, voiced by a man. It’s the note that Momma, unloved, kids grown, ‘carefully wrote and left to Daddy’. She’s gone and she’s not coming back. This is quintessential country storytelling: sparse, keenly observed, with a hint of underlying unease and a twist at the end. The last line fades, self-possessed and defiant, over the dying notes: Goodbye to Daddy.
Imagine my shock to discover that song was written by Dolly Parton.
Dolly! Her name alone evoked everything I thought I detested: exaggerated, artificial, polished and primped, a plaything. Dolly Parton, with her big hair and her make-up and her cheesy smile.
My feminism was the feminism of a privileged, bookish private-school girl, Germaine Greer’s intellectual swagger and Kate Millett’s literary anger, hitched to suburban restlessness and middle-class resentments. If that song forced me to recognise women’s suffering, courage and power elsewhere – and it had – discovering who wrote it was a necessary and humbling amplification. Listen to women, don’t judge, learn. Hear their songs and their stories.
Parton described that recording’s backstory to Nancy Cardwell, in The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: ‘I wrote “To Daddy” for myself, but I freely gave it away to Emmylou Harris … That is when I realised how seriously I took myself as a writer, and how much more important my songwriting was, even more than my singing.’ Parton had invited Harris to the studio to hear songs she’d been working on for her own album. ‘We were playing the songs, and she begged for that song, and ‘Porter [Wagoner] said, “No, that’s Dolly’s next single.” Emmy said, “That is the greatest song. I just have to have that song.”‘
On its release in 1978, Harris recalled those first impressions for Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres: ‘It’s like an O Henry short story because she sets you up. You’re expecting the woman to die, but Dolly just comes back with the old whammo and turns it all around.’
As Parton tells it: ‘She asked for it, I’m a writer and I’m gonna let her have it … Porter was real mad and thought it was the stupidest thing in the world to do. It was a good move, though … She promoted me as a writer to other people.’
Emmylou Harris was a very smart choice. Her feminine country-rock idiom (which Fong-Torres characterised as ‘lost-lovesick blues and an image of “weaker-sex” vulnerability’) brought out the slowburning ache of the song, which gave its final kick that extra power. Parton’s sweetness and twang are not so seductive. (It would be many years before Parton recorded it herself, though you can find a delightfully amateur video on YouTube of her singing it in 1979 at her old high school.)
Consider this song’s place in Parton’s oeuvre, and it’s easy to further a feminist reading. She’s supporting and nurturing other women. She’s taking control of her own creativity and career. She’s defying a powerful man to whom she owed much of her success.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I first dropped the needle on Quarter Moon and listened to ‘To Daddy’. I just knew it was one of most beautiful, wrenching and – yes –feminist songs I’d ever heard.
This is part of a series responding to our recent Pitch Page query about the feminist politics of Dolly Parton, a topic that received an unusual amount of interest. Read the other two responses:
‘Diamonds and rhinestones and authenticity’, by Nadine Brown
‘Working-class hero?’, by Rebecca Varcoe
(Note, we’re thinking about running a series about the music and politics of Beyoncé before the end of the year. Head over to our Pitch Page if you’ve a burning opinion on the subject.)