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‘Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiiiiiiiiiiine’: Northeastern professor performs rendition of Dolly Parton’s hit

Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University, performing a rendition of Dolly Parton's hit "Jolene."Ryan Cordell

After news came to light that beloved singer Dolly Parton had made a significant contribution to Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine research, the Internet naturally went wild with adoring fans praising her latest charitable endeavor.

The Cambridge-based drugmaker announced Monday that its experimental vaccine had proven highly effective at preventing infections — and it wasn’t long before people began creatively playing around with Parton’s classic “Jolene” in honor of her part in making a potential treatment possible.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch went a step further than most: she wrote out a whole new set of lyrics, designed to be sung to the tune of the classic.


McCulloch, author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” invited anyone who wanted to “actually record this” to be her guest.

Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University, quickly took her up on the offer.

A video of him strumming his guitar and singing along to McCulloch’s rendition of “Jolene” has since gone viral.

When he was casually browsing Twitter on Monday night, Cordell, who follows a number of other academics — and said he even teaches McCulloch’s book in his classes — just happened to stumble across her tweets on his feed.

“I love that song. I love Dolly Parton. And I don’t know — I was inspired,” Cordell said in an interview late Tuesday night. “So I went and grabbed my guitar.”

Cordell said he’s performed music his entire life and plays with a group of dads on the weekend — but this is the first time he’s amassed such a large audience.

“It’s pretty wild,” he said.

Inspired by both his parents and grandparents, Cordell said he grew up with Parton’s music. Recently, he listened to Radiolab’s “Dolly Parton’s America,” which was “this fascinating peek into her influence or cultural influence,” he said.


Pictured behind Cordell in the video hangs a poster he collected from the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 2019, when Dolly Parton was a surprise guest and performed with Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen.

The moment remains as one of his “favorite musical memories” of his entire life, Cordell said.

“So I was just thrilled to see this news that she had contributed to COVID vaccine research — I thought that was amazing,” he said. “Dolly Parton’s having kind of a cultural moment right now anyway, and if she’s also going to contribute to getting us out of the pandemic, that just seems appropriate to me.”

Based on her philanthropic efforts in the past, it wasn’t surprising to learn of Parton’s role in Moderna’s vaccine being developed, Cordell said, but he was “charmed to see that she had specifically given to that cause.” And as an academic, it was particularly “fun to see” the “Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund” cited in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Cordell said he typically only uses Twitter as a professional space, “so it felt a little risky” uploading a video of himself singing to the social media platform. But so far, the response has “been super fun to see” and the feedback “incredibly positive.”

“I think the most interesting responses to me is there have been a lot of medical professionals, doctors, and nurses who have said that it made them smile to see the video. And that’s really amazing because those folks are under so much pressure and stress, and especially right now as hospitals are getting overwhelmed,” Cordell said. “And so if they watched the video, and it made them happy for a minute, that’s all I need.”


With views of his video soaring, Cordell tweeted a funny aside Wednesday morning. “Legit, though: If I’d thought 60,000+ people — & now folks on TV — were going to watch me sing a thing, I’d have put on a nicer shirt.”

Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98.