Once satirized as a dumb blonde country singer, Dolly Parton has emerged as that rare celebrity known for truly effective philanthropy rather than scandal or high-profile political statements. She has just donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University in support of its effort to help develop Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, but her record of effective philanthropy extends back decades. Her Imagination Library sends free books to children in five countries, including the United States. She sent her own money to help those who lost their homes to wildfire in her native Smoky Mountains. Parton has never been publicly political, but her Covid donation, like her previous efforts, is suggestive of a philosophy about poverty and opportunity that makes clear how she found her way to success—and to philanthropy.
That philosophy also rings out in her music. Think not of her feminist anthem, “9 to 5,” or “I Will Always Love You,” which Whitney Houston turned into an annuity for Parton that likely helps fund her generous giving. Rather, Parton’s true masterpiece is one of her first as a solo artist, after she bravely walked away from her role as the “girl singer” for country legend Porter Wagoner’s show. Her poignant, biblical, and literate “growing up” song, “Coat of Many Colors,” is also a musical map out of deep poverty.
Female country music singers have long given voice to the woes of women wronged by unfaithful or drunken husbands. Parton has her share of such songs, too, but “Coat of Many Colors” transcends them. The autobiographical lyrics tell the story of Parton’s dirt-poor youth on the Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center, near Sevierville, Tennessee, as the fourth of 12 children supported by a sharecropper father. That deep rural poverty comes through in lyrics that tell the story of a bag of rags her mother sews—“every stitch with love”—into a winter coat that the family couldn’t afford to buy. As her mother sews, she tells Parton of the Bible’s Joseph and his own coat of many colors. Despite all that, when Parton wears the coat to school, she “finds the others a-laughing and making fun of me.” But she remains undaunted:
And oh I couldn’t understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told ’em all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes
But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me
The song is thus a testament to self-reliance and self-confidence of a sort that allows a poor mountain girl to become a superstar—or allows anyone to climb out of a poverty she does not accept as inevitable. It is no coincidence that Parton’s philanthropy provides essential tools for self-improvement.
Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” places her among a pantheon of great American songwriters and performers. I once collected it, along with other songs, for my own children on what we called “the growing up tape.” All the songs share the Parton perspective on upward mobility. The mix includes Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” Bob Seger’s “Making Thunderbirds,” Rev. Cleophus Robinson’s “Poor Boy from Mississippi,” Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” Willie Johnson and the Gospel Keynotes’ “’Til We Meet,” and Paul Simon’s “My Little Town.”
Dolly Parton’s richly deserved moment in the limelight is an occasion to discover such songs anew and to reflect on the means by which a poor mountain girl grew up to become a woman who uses her great wealth to save lives.
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy