Classic Country Singles: Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors”

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December 7, 2008

Coat of Many Colors
Dolly Parton
1971

Written by Dolly Parton

When asked her favorite song among all those she has written, Dolly Parton always answers, “Coat of Many Colors.”   It’s a true story from her childhood that speaks volumes about her pride for her own heritage, much like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

She writes in her autobiography that when she was a young girl, her family was “as poor as Job’s turkey.”  People from the area would drop off bags of clothing scraps for them to use for clothing for the children.   Parton’s mother usually tried to make the scraps match as much as possible when tailoring an outfit, but knowing Dolly’s personality, she decided to make a coat “out of the brightest, most different colors she could find.  This was going to be a colorful coat with no apologies.”

As documented in the song, Parton’s mother told the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors as she sewed a coat for her daughter.   What made the coat so special wasn’t just the design, but the amount of time spent on it.  “When there are so many kids in a family,” she writes, “you can imagine how a mother’s time is to be divided up between them.  So to see my mother spending this much time to do something just for me was special indeed.”

Even though it wasn’t cold enough for a coat yet, she insisted on wearing it to school the day after it was finished.   She was greeted by “a whole room of mocking faces: laughing, pointing, jeering at me.”   The sympathetic teacher saw she was being picked on, and suggested she hang the coat in the cloakroom, but Parton refused:

The would not shake my pride in my coat, my love for my mother, my faith in myself.  I would not have it. I would sit there and be hot and wait them out.  I would wait until school was over and walk proudly from the building wearing my coat like a banner of pride.  I would walk with my head high into the autumn afternoon and show my coat to God.  He would know how special it was, how special I was.  He did.  He liked the way it complemented his evergreens and the rich brown earth of the path.  He watched carefully to catch glimpses of it from his side of the clouds as I marched proudly home.  He loved the way it looked on his Dolly Parton.

The song “Coat of Many Colors” sands down the rougher edges of that childhood memory, keeping the storyline intact but emphasizing the reaffirming dignity of maternal love.   The message of the song is that such love is what makes one truly rich, regardless of the money in their bank account or the retail value of their material goods.    While poverty may be an unassailable reality, it need not define who you are. “One is only poor,” she stresses, “only if they choose to be.”    It’s the mountain poet’s equivalent of the Eleanor Roosevelt adage, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

“Coat of Many Colors” was a #4 hit for Parton, helping to establish her solo hit-making power.  The album of the same name was her first to be nominated for Album of the Year at the CMA Awards.   The song has since become a standard, covered by numerous acts, most notably Emmylou Harris and Shania Twain.   The success has helped alleviate the hurt that Parton associated with the memory.   As she wryly notes, “It’s amazing how healing money can be.”

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Category: Artist of the Month: Dolly Parton, Classic Country Singles
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  1. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    Wow, great song. Sadly, I just heard it for the first time as I was reading this post, but I’m very impressed with it.

  2. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    That’s not a “sadly” in my book, as that’s the entire reason this feature exists!

  3. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    It’s sad for me because I missed out on such a great song for a long time!

    Has anyone seen the duet of this song with Shania Twain and Dolly? It’s very good.

  4. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Chris D.,

    Better yet, get yourself a copy of Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton and hear the studio version of Shania’s cover. It’s probably my second favorite after the original, plus you get Allison Moorer, Mindy Smith and Norah Jones improving the originals on “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” “Jolene,” and “The Grass is Blue,” respectively. For some reason it’s not on iTunes, but it’s worth hunting down in CD form.

  5. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    I’ll have to look that up!

  6. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yeah, I suggest that tribute album as well, though Dolly’s version of this song is the winner for me.

  7. SheldonNo Gravatar says:

    Last year RCA Nashville/Legacy re-released the “Coat of many Colors” album with bonus tracks…as well as “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Jolene”…all with bonus tracks and all certainly worth checking out.

  8. BethNo Gravatar says:

    This is just a plain great country song. I absolutely love it, and I love Dolly.

  9. CFNo Gravatar says:

    I was lucky enough to buy Shania’s version with AKUS from the tribute album a while back on Walmart.com, by itself, and convert it to mp3. Too bad they got rid of those Walmart exclusives.

  10. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Oh, and lest I forget to mention, this is easily my favorite Dolly song, and I would probably rank it among the best country songs of all-time.

    Part of what I love about it is that Dolly doesn’t seem to paint the scene as a black-and-white (appropriately, ha) case of her being saintly and the other kids being horrible; you can totally see a young girl her age explaining, completely tactlessly, that her coat “was worth more than all their clothes,” and you can understand how the other kids would respond even more unfavorably to that. It’s such an honest account of things that your sympathy for young Parton feels that much more real.

    Great connection to Eleanor Roosevelt, by the way.

  11. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    Dan,

    I have a poster in my classroom of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, so I can’t take too much credit for knowing that one by heart.

    This is one of my favorite Parton songs, too. Not my ultimate favorite, but definitely near the top.

  12. SheldonNo Gravatar says:

    Which one is your ultimate favorite, Kevin? Just wondering…

  13. RainbowNo Gravatar says:

    Dolly’s finest song ever is the original version of “Light Of A Clear Blue Morning” from 1977. “Hello God” is a close second.
    “Coat Of Many Colors” is a true classic, and deservedly so. It’s no wonder it’s her favorite.

  14. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    PS, Kevin you’ll be proud, I’m planning on mentioning this song in a paper I’m writing on Catcher In The Rye. The song illustrates my thesis very well, so I’m using it in my intro!

  15. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Sheldon,
    Kevin will be posting his own Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists for Dolly this month.

    It’s cool that Dolly’s favorite song of hers is also mine.:)

  16. Ralph SuarezNo Gravatar says:

    The Coat Of Many Colors album that featured this song is a phenomenal recording. I would even go as far as saying that this album is the most important one and the landmark of Dolly Parton’s career. One of my favorite Dolly Parton songs appears on this album, Here I Am.

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