I would venture to say that almost everybody, even non-fans, know the story of Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” So poor were they in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, Dolly’s mom sewed together a coat from a box of random rags so that she would have something to wear to school in the fall. She was so proud of it, but it was promptly made fun of by her classmates. Dolly refers to it as her favorite song of hers that she has written. She tells the
story in concert pretty much every tour she goes on and every time, she tells it like it’s the first time she told the story. Except for one misstep which was painfully recorded for a live album in which Dolly compared being made fun of for the a coat to being made fun of because of a disability (a “handicap” as she put it – cue the cringes), it’s usually told with so much earnestness that you can’t help but love her all that much more for it.
So it was with great amazement that I realized that after nearly 30 years of Dolly Parton fandom, I didn’t have the whole story. I can thank the good folks over at Star Maker Machine for finishing out the story, which they culled from a 1977 interview that Dolly did with Rolling Stone. Here’s the quote.
That was a very sad and cutting memory…I remember the pain of it and the mockery. How the kids had tried to take my little coat off and I was just “sprouting”…and I didn’t have a blouse on under it because I had done well just to have this little jacket to wear. So when the kids kept saying I didn’t have a shirt on under it, I said I did, because I was embarrassed. So they broke the buttons off my coat. They locked me in a coat closet that day and held the door closed and it was black dark in there, and I just went into a screaming fit. I remembered all that and I was ashamed to even mention it, and for years I held it in.
SPROUTING?! Seriously, WTF? And let’s not even get started on the use of the word “blouse.”
I sent this story to a group of friends of mine this morning that I knew would appreciate it. One of them wrote back to me and told me that she was surprised that the emotion that the story really elicited in her was jealousy. I mean, how old was Dolly when she was “sprouting”? Seven?
In any event, after hearing what Paul Harvey would have called “the rest of the story,” I felt bad for Dolly. Locked in a coat closet? Screaming for help? Being exposed to her classmates because she didn’t have a shirt to put on underneath it? Wow. I guess those really were the good old days when times were bad.
Many many years later, “Coat of Many Colors” became a children’s book which I dutifully bought for my child. I can still remember the first time she heard the song and recognized it as one of her books. Too bad more of Dolly’s songs didn’t get turned into children’s books. I’m thinking “Down From Dover” (the best of several baby-born-dead songs that Dolly has recorded – so good she recorded it twice) or “Evening Shade” in which the orphans burn down the orphanage in retaliation for the matron whipping an orphan for wetting the bed might make good candidates.
Still, all these years later, I still picture Dolly, her platinum blond wig and full face of make-up on a kid’s sized body when I think of that girl who was bullied by her classmates over her choice of clothes. Pretty much this.