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.
Listen to this track by the original outlaw and country-rockabilly badass Man-in-Black Johnny Cash with the live version of his take on T.J “Red” Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues” as taken from his titanic 1968 At Folsom Prison album. This is a monumental track from an historic record that mixes two warring ingredients that drove Cash up until then, and arguably continued to drive him; violence and spirituality.
Here’s a tale of the former, the story of wife-killer and cokehead Willy Lee, who shoots his other half and high-tails it, too slow as it turns out, to Juarez Mexico, only to be picked up by the Law. The song is barked out by Cash, who is hoarse and enthusiastic as the narrator of this tale of outlawry, delivering it to a roomful of men who may well have been guilty of some of the same things as the ill-fated Willy Lee.
But, what is happening with the performance of this tale of drug abuse and murder is actually the exact opposite of that side of human activity: this is ministry.
Thus, the song represents both sides of Cash’s coin, just by the sheer audacity he had by singing it to the prisoners of Folsom Prison. Performing this tale of murder and desperation becomes an act of empathy, and compassion.