On first listen, Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" seems to offer an ironic twist on the tale of Joseph and his coat of many colors. In the Book of Genesis story, Joseph's coat is an object of envy. His father, Jacob, makes him the coat. His brothers take it as an indication that Joseph is the favored son. In jealousy, they capture Joseph, rip the coat from his back and sell him into slavery. The brothers take their father Joseph's bloodied cloak to fool him into thinking his son has been devoured by wild beasts.
In her Appalachian version of the tale, Parton's colored coat is viewed not with jealousy, but with scorn. The children make fun of a ragtag frock Dolly's mother has handcrafted. She tries to convince her classmates her clothes are special, but there's no indication in the narrative that her friends are swayed. Still, Parton recognizes the value of the love her mother "sewed in every stitch" and closes by saying, despite being poor, "I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors my mama made for me."
With Parton's cheery disposition and little-girl voice, "Coat" comes off as heartwarming story of the power of maternal love. But, the backstory, which she told Chet Flippo in a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, is darker than that.
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.
"Coat of Many Colors" is testament to Parton's power as a songwriter. She's long been under-rated, despite having written one of the best-selling songs in the history of pop music ("I Will Always Love You"). "Coat of Many Colors" succeeds on many levels -- as a parable, as autobiography and as psychotherapy. And, it's a good song, too.