Listen to this track by Tennessean songwriter and true rags to riches tale in the flesh Dolly Parton. It’s “Coat of Many Colors” as taken from the 1971 album that references it, Joshua & the Coat of Many Colors. The story is a childhood tale, touching on a number of themes. But, one of the big ones is that of a mother’s love. On the week just before Mother’s Day here in North America (in Britain, it’s in March, friends), that’s a pretty top-of-mind theme for many.
The song was a standout on the record, and released as a single where it reached a #4 position on the country charts. It would later go on the be extensively covered by a variety of artists from Billy Connoly to Shania Twain, to Dolly Parton herself. It would become something of an anthem to the region out of which it came as well. It seems that there were a lot of hard-working mothers supporting families, which maybe why the themes of strong mothers carried this song to success.
But, this song touches on other themes besides, with the rare feat of doing justice to all of them.
The depth to be found in this song may be one of the reasons that it remains to be one of Parton’s favourites among her own compositions, written on the back of a dry-cleaning ticket while stationed in the back of a tour bus in 1969. It holds a novel’s worth of gravity, and yet it’s an accessible song ready for the mainstream. Parton is not always known as a singular songwriter. But, this one is exhibit A, touching on threads (pardon the pun!) that make it a three dimensional tale that lives and breathes, and not just because it’s a true story .
Besides the theme of a mother’s love, another key to be found here is the power of perception. It’s not just that Dolly feels rich because of the effort her mother has put into keeping her warm as fall drifts into winter, and because she simply chooses to place value where not many others can see it. But, it’s also that there is a direct connection that Dolly sees to the Biblical tale of another coat of many colors, also made by a parent to celebrate the love for a child. That child too went on to face trials, and to eventually win success. That’s Dolly’s tale, too of course. But, as this song reveals, she didn’t get there on her own.
The coat sung about in this song actually exists. You can see it if you happen to be visiting Dollywood. And you can also see the dry-cleaning ticket on which the song’s first draft was written, donated by Dolly’s mentor and singing partner Porter Wagoner, since it was his suit that had come back from the cleaners!
For more about Dolly Parton, check out dollypartonmusic.net.
And happy Mother’s Day!