Tunesday: Dolly Parton – “He’s Alive”

For March, our Tunesday theme is: “In like a lamb, out like a lion” — songs that build to an awesome crescendo, vocally or musically

This month on i listen i watch the theme for Tuesday Tunesday has been “In like a lamb, out like a lion” with the various submissions dealing with songs that build, vocally or musically, to a grand crescendo. All of my fellow contributors to this site have picked several great songs that best exemplify this theme and I’ve enjoyed reading them all. Now, I have the honor of making the last submission of the month. So, I’ve thought about all the songs I know that begin sort of soft and low then build in momentum. Many came to mind. However, there is one that stands out among them and best exemplifies how a song can begin at one point and end at a completely different one. A song that not only increases musically and vocally but one where the story in the lyrics builds as well. For me, that song is Dolly Parton’s version of “He’s Alive.”

“He’s Alive” is a song that was originally written and recorded in 1980 by Christian artist Don Francisco and released on his album Got To Tell Somebody. Though his version was successful, to paraphrase the song’s lyrics, once Dolly got a hold of it “it wouldn’t be the same.” Dolly, alongside Ricky Skaggs as her producer, made “He’s Alive” the final song on her 1989 album White Limozeen. Dolly, with Ricky’s guidance, took the song and turned it into something akin to an event or an experience. Dolly’s version closely follows Don’s version in it’s basic structure and musicality. However, the big difference, aside from Dolly’s trademark tremolo, is the inclusion of the Christ Church choir acting as background vocalists. It’s thanks to this, and the more dramatic orchestral music, that sets Dolly’s version apart from Don’s and anyone else’s for that matter. Don’s version doesn’t include any background vocals whereas Dolly’s became a choral piece.

The song, which begins sort of low and unassuming, builds continuously until Dolly is joined by the choir for the final uproarious chorus. On the album the song is successful in achieving its goal of telling a Biblical story and getting it’s point across to its listener(s). However, while other songs on the album such as “Yellow Roses” and “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” were getting all the attention, “He’s Alive” wasn’t. That is until the night of October 9, 1989 when Dolly performed the song live on the CMA Awards telecast on CBS. While other artists would’ve chosen to showcase a song they wanted to be their next radio hit, Dolly chose to perform something that would instead stand out and be special.

It’s this live performance which, perhaps more than the album version, shows how the song builds. “He’s Alive” is essentially a song about the Easter story and Christ’s ascension from the tomb. So, as the music and vocals build so does the story within the lyrics. The song gains momentum as Dolly’s character in the song learns of Christ’s body being moved from his tomb, and her eventual meeting with him after he is risen when she realizes that he’s alive, she’s forgiven for denying him and he ascends to Heaven. The recorded version is great itself but Dolly knew the power of television and that it is a visual medium. So, decked out in a form-fitting white designer dress, Dolly assembled a 100-member choir from Christ Church in Nashville to join her on stage. By doing this Dolly not only created a great moment of television but she made the song better and more powerful. As if her rendition of the song weren’t enough to drive home the meaning of the lyrics Dolly’s dramatic actions, elaborate staging and the inclusion of the choir certainly were.

This performance brings to mind something that Dabney Coleman once said of Dolly. When they were filming 9 to 5 many people had their doubts about Dolly’s acting ability and whether or not she would be able to hold her own with seasoned actors in her debut feature film. Mr. Coleman noted that acting in a film is a lot like acting a song out on stage and, as he so eloquently put it, Dolly “can act the hell out of a song.”

Perhaps this is no more evident than her performance of “He’s Alive” both on record and live on the CMAs telecast. Therefore, I’ve included links to YouTube videos of both performances. I believe that by watching and listening to both of these you will agree with me that this song is one that certainly comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion. And so, as Easter approaches this year and you listen to this song I hope, as Dolly says, that you get a blessing out of it.

Album Version

CMA Version

Read more from Jason here.