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    Heartbreaker

    I’m not sure whether it’s the most depressing song ever, but Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” is one of those country songs that play on the emotions very cunningly. From the very first verse, you know exactly what’s going to happen:

    I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret I have tried concealing
    When he left he promised me that he’d be back by the time it was revealing
    The sun behind a cloud just casts a crawling shadow o’er the fields of clover
    And time is running out for me–I wish that he would hurry down from Dover

    It’s not just that the story is as old as time–it’s that Parton sets it in the autumn, when things begin to chill and die. Of course, real babies are born in fall all the time, but within the universe of symbols in the song, Parton’s choice of season is significant.

    He’s been gone so long–when he left the snow was deep upon the ground
    And I have seen a spring and summer pass, and now the leaves are turning brown
    And any time a tiny face will show itself ’cause waiting’s almost over
    But I won’t have a name to give it if he doesn’t hurry down from Dover

    My folks weren’t understanding–when they found out they sent me from the home place
    My daddy said if folks found out he’d be ashamed to ever show his face
    My mamma said I was a fool, and she did not believe it when I told her
    That everything would be all right ’cause soon he would be coming down from Dover

    I found a place to stay out on a farm taking care of an old lady
    She never asked me nothing, so I never talked to her about my baby
    I sent a message to my mom with a name and address of Miss Elvah Grover
    And to make sure he got that information when he came down from Dover

    I loved him more than anything, and I could not refuse him when he needed me
    He was the only one I’d loved, and I just can’t believe that he was using me
    He couldn’t leave me here like this–I know it can’t be so, it can’t be over
    He wouldn’t make me go through this alone, oh, he’ll be coming down from Dover

    My body aches, the time is here, it’s lonely in this place where I’m lying
    Our baby has been born, but something’s wrong–it’s much too still–I hear no crying
    I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her
    And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover

    Look me dead in the pixels and tell me you’re not depressed. The fourth verse was omitted from the original version on The Fairest of Them All, but Parton reinserted it on her wonderful remake a few years ago on Little Sparrow. She changed the phrasing in places, too. In either version, the story is beautifully paced–each step at which the protagonist is further isolated from people and still doesn’t get what’s going on positively hurts to listen to. Dramatic irony at its most devastating. And unlike many of the old ballads from which Parton (among a lot of other country songwriters, of course) drew inspiration, the poor girl doesn’t end up dead and at least out of her misery.

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