One of Dolly Parton‘s most famous songs is “Coat of Many Colors.” It tells the story of a little girl who gets made fun of at school for wearing a coat that her mother made her out of various scraps of fabric. Because the coat was made with love, the little girl is proud of the gift from her mother, even though her schoolmates make fun of her for it.
The song is based on a real experience Parton had as a child. Her classmates really did make fun of her for a coat her mother made her. And her mother really did tell her that the coat was special because it was just like Joseph’s in the Bible. But what’s not in the song is how young Parton felt betrayed by her mother for telling her the coat was special when no one else seemed to think so.
Dolly Parton’s mother gave her a hand-sewn coat of many colors
In Parton’s 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, she tells the real story behind “Coat of Many Colors.”
“My mom made me this little coat,” she wrote. “In order to make me proud of that little coat, I know now, she told me the story about Joseph from the Bible and his coat of many colors. So I thought, ‘Well, if it’s from the Bible, and Joseph was an important person, it has to be very special and important.’”
But, as the song goes, when Parton got to school, “the kids did not see that.”
“They just made fun of my little coat,” she wrote. “I had seen so much more in that coat than what Mama had sewn, things sewn into my body, my soul, my everything. Mama had made it and told the story and made it all seem so real. It was so mind-warping and heart-shattering to me when they made fun of it. In my mind, I thought I looked just like Joseph. But the kids didn’t, and it crushed me.”
Dolly Parton calls the incident ‘traumatic’
Parton tried to communicate to her classmates what her mother had told her.
“I was trying to tell them in my own way, ‘It ain’t about golden riches. You can be rich in love. In all sorts of wonderful things, you can be rich.’ But the kids didn’t get that,” she wrote.
Parton’s classmates locked her in the coat closet and refused to let her out — “And I was so afraid of the dark as a kid.”
The whole day stuck with Parton for many years, eventually resulting in the famous song.
“That was a traumatic thing for a child of that age—to be shattered and to try to put those pieces back together, trying to teach a bunch of kids who didn’t want to know,” she wrote.
‘Wealth is not measured by a dollar’
After young Parton’s horrible day at school, she felt her mother had given her faulty information.
“I was even kind of hurt and angry at my mama, because I felt that she had sort of told me a fib,” she wrote. “I even expressed that to her.”
But Parton and her mother had a conversation about what it really means to be rich.
“Mama said, ‘Look, don’t you ever say we are poor. We are not poor people. Now, we don’t have as much material stuff as other people do, but wealth is not measured by a dollar.’ She explained the whole thing to me and again made me feel proud of my little coat,” she wrote.
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