Photo from the 2015 film ‘Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.’
“Influential” is not a big enough word for what Dolly Parton has come to mean to us all — the woman who not only has a theme park, Dollywood, but also recently made a million-dollar donation to fund coronavirus vaccine research and updated her enduring hit “Jolene” to encourage vaccination (“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine / I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate / Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine / ’Cause once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late”). In light of this, it’s not an understatement to say Parton is doing her part to try and save the world.
Her advocacy for public health is not a surprise to anyone who has followed the career of this larger-than-life star: Since her solo breakthrough, Coat of Many Colors, Dolly has been telling us to care for one another.
The title track and emotional center of the album, “Coat of Many Colors” has been turned into a children’s book and two movies, and covered by country stars like Shania Twain and Alison Krauss, as well as Emmylou Harris (who covers the song on her album Pieces of the Sky, upcoming VMP Country No. 7). The song was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2011, among other accolades. Put simply, it is a story of family and faith, developing a strong sense of self and overcoming bullying and prejudice — one that has endured for 50 years.
Memorabilia from the song are displayed in not one, but two museums: A newer version of the original coat, remade by Parton’s mother, is on display at her Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood, along with the framed dry cleaning receipt the song’s lyrics were first written on (gifted to the museum by Porter Wagoner); the coat from the movie adaptation, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, is also on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
The children’s book, Coat of Many Colors, is essentially an illustrated lyric booklet, originally published in 1994 with art by Judith Sutton, republished in 2016 with new art by Brooke Boynton-Hughes. In the afterword of the 2016 edition, Parton wrote: “It warms my heart to know that for many people, these words have become a lesson to try to stop bullying in school. … And for those of you who may already have been victims of bullying, please know the hurt can heal. If this book can help but one child find comfort, then I guess all my dreams for this book will have come true.”
Since the song is written about Parton’s own childhood, it makes perfect sense to see it in this form, made accessible for children.
The song’s world was fictionalized and brought to the big screen in the 2015 made-for-television movie, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors — and the spin-off Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love in 2016. Eight-year-old Alyvia Alyn Lind plays Dolly, and country singer Jennifer Nettles plays Parton’s mother. In an interview following the film, when asked about the coat itself, Lind said, “I loved the coat when I saw it for the first time. I had no idea how beautiful it would be — and I felt so proud wearing it. It symbolizes accepting people for who they are, and it patches together little bits and pieces of Dolly’s life — it also shows how much love Dolly’s mom had for her and her family. I felt so much responsibility putting it on because I know how much it means to Dolly.”
Despite being only eight at the time, Lind captures quite clearly and succinctly the message of “Coat of Many Colors.” It speaks to the clarity of the song’s messaging that someone so young can communicate it with such ease.
In very humble Dolly fashion, she told People: “Little Aly Lind, she did so great. I never was that pretty or that cute or that special, but she did a great job.” She also said, of seeing the film for the first time with her sister, Stella: “It’s too emotional to watch with a bunch of people because we lose our eyelashes — we wear a lot of makeup.”
The staying power of “Coat of Many Colors” is likely grounded in that emotionality — it’s one of those stories that has a core of truth and resonance to it. Fifty years ago, writing on that dry cleaning receipt, Dolly started telling an origin story that’s grown to mythic proportions. And we likely haven’t seen the last of that patchwork coat in our collective imagination.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.