Country music has a long tradition of murder ballads and tales of mystery and imagination, but it just doesn’t get much creepier than this popular, haunting and Halloween-appropriate B-side to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s single “We’ll Get Ahead Someday.” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” was written by Parton and mainly performed by her, but this version taken from the duo’s second LP, Just the Two of Us, includes one of country music’s most sublimely unsettling recitations by Wagoner.
“Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” starts off as the benign tale of a frightened little girl who wakes up in tears and runs into Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom to share their bed because, well, the title pretty much explains it all. Things get complicated for little Jeannie when her parents take her to visit a graveyard, where they place flowers by the tombstones of family members. When Jeannie observes that it must be dark underground, she tells mommy and daddy that, because of her fear, when she dies she doesn’t want to be buried. This being classic country music (and vintage Parton pathos), Jeannie is, of course, not long for this world.
Wagoner takes the spotlight to explain in his chilling recitation that the couple never understood why their only child suffered from the condition scientifically referred to as nyctophobia. Yet with the way he intones, “Because we looked after Jeannie with the very best of care,” a case could be made that casts a veil of doubt over that claim. “Perhaps it was death that she was so afraid of,” he says, “because it took her one dark, stormy night.”
The couple does, however, place an eternal flame on Jeannie’s grave so that even in the afterlife on the darkest night she won’t be plagued by her once paralyzing fear. (Apparently she was also afraid of fire. Otherwise, they could have just had her cremated and saved a bit on that eternal-flame technology.)
“Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” was later covered by Irish folk and country singer Daniel O’Donnell and his singing partner Mary Duff. Porter and Dolly’s partnership flame was forever extinguished when Parton left Wagoner’s TV series in 1974. Wagoner died in 2007 and both legendary performers are now enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Parton’s inspiration for the song may have been based on one of her biggest fears. In 2011, the bubbly global icon confessed to the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that she prefers riding in a tour bus to flying. “I don’t like being cooped up,” she said.