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.”