Dolly Parton: Singer, songwriter, pandemic savior?
By Maria Cramer
She wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the same day and built a theme park around herself. She has given memorable on-screen performances as a wisecracking hairstylist and harassed secretary. She even helped bring about the creation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Now, Dolly Parton’s fans are crediting her with saving the world from the coronavirus. It’s an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek claim, to be sure. But for legions of admirers, Parton’s donation this spring to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drugmaker Moderna to develop a coronavirus vaccine, was another example of how the singer’s generosity and philanthropy have made her one of the world’s most beloved artists.
“Shakespeare may have written King Lear during the plague, but Dolly Parton funded a COVID vaccine, dropped a Christmas album and a Christmas special,” author Lyz Lenz said on Twitter.
In April, Parton announced that she had donated $1 million to Vanderbilt after her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, a professor of surgery at the university, in Nashville, Tennessee, told her about the work researchers were doing to come up with a vaccine. Abumrad’s son, Jad Abumrad, is the creator of “Radiolab” and host of the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America.”
Her contribution, which became known as the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund, helped pay for the first part of the vaccine research, which was led by Dr. Mark Denison, a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt. The federal government eventually invested $1 billion in the creation and testing of the vaccine, but Denison said it was Parton’s money that funded the “critical” early stages of the research.
“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Denison said Tuesday.
On Monday, after Moderna announced that early trials of the vaccine showed a 94.5% effectiveness rate, fans reacted rapturously.
“I want everyone to know that Dolly Parton gave us Buffy the TV series, the song 9 to 5, Dollywood, and of course the COVID vaccine,” wrote one fan on Twitter.
Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, filmed himself singing a song about the vaccine to the tune of “Jolene.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiine, I’m begging of you please go in my arm,” he sang, while playing guitar and describing the virus as “beyond compare with spiky bursts of auburn hair that COVID, that corona emerald green.”
The lyrics were written by linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.”
She said she wrote the lyrics in part because the song “Jolene,” about one woman begging another not to steal her man, has the “same desperate feel” that the pandemic has instilled in so many people.
Now McCulloch is hoping Parton might release her own vaccine song, she said.
“If Dolly Parton wants to record a vaccine PSA to the tune of ‘Jolene,’” she said, “I think everyone would be very pleased.”