SONG TITLE: COAT OF MANY COLORS
PERFORMER: DOLLY PARTON
SONGWRITER: DOLLY PARTON
YEAR OF RELEASE:
SONG TITLE: IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS
PERFORMER: DOLLY PARTON
SONGWRITER: DOLLY PARTON
YEAR OF RELEASE:
COMMENTS: Being a hillbilly by birth and raised on country music and culture, I am familiar with and sensitive to common themes and cliches of the culture. One of the couple of most annoying of those themes is "po' folks." Bill Anderson's song of that title comes to mind. Country singers or comedians will sit around out "po'"ing one another, going on about how they were more poor than the other. Besides being boring and stale, they use this as a kind of perverse pride - as if being born in poverty is actually a mark of superiority. Or an excuse for their dysfunctionality. It's ghetto.
Dolly, of course, is from just such an economically challenged Appalachian background, and it has naturally been the topic or subtext of much of her work. Being an intelligent woman and even a true artist on a good day, she's got more insight and deeper emotions than mere cheap sentimentality on the topic.
"Coat of Many Colors" is a true story from her childhood. Coming into cold weather but lacking money to buy a coat, her mother made one for her from a box of rags someone gave them. As she sewed, she told young Dolly about the Biblical story of Joseph and likened her new coat to the extravagantly expensive "coat of many colors" that his father had made for him. Mom went on to tell her how her special coat would bring her good luck and happiness, and "blessed it with a kiss."
The social repercussions of wearing such a coat, however, were quite different than they would have hoped. They both suffered ostracism. In the Bible, Joseph's brothers were so overcome with jealousy at this display of patriarchal preference that they kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. Dolly's classmates responded by laughing and making fun of her for being poor.
She was hurt and surprised by their reaction. They missed the point. She tried to explain to them about "the love my mama sewed in every stitch," naturally to no avail. The coat was actually probably just as warm as any other, and she felt like she was rich, luxuriating in the glow of mother's love. From her point of view, the feelings that went into the creation of her coat made it worth more than all their store-bought clothes.
This brings her to the underlying point, which is about the nature of poverty. Lack of money is but a temporary circumstance that you just have to work around, but poverty is a state of mind. "One is only poor, only if they choose to be." This is pretty good philosophical insight for a young schoolgirl. Witnessing such meanness would tend to bring out a more blunt observation from me: To a rich stockbroker's kid or a Kennedy child, everyone in their whole town would be white trash just the same.
She dressed her story musically with as much care as her mother clothed her. There is a palpable sense of urgency in the music, a need to sort out and explain all the different complex emotional strands that she's been carrying around all this time. Her feelings of pride come out of the notes "I couldn't wait to wear it." You can feel sense how many times she's been over all this in her own mind searching for the right notes to explain her hurt and frustration with her classmates as she sings "and they couldn't understand it, but I tried to make them see..." Finally, you can feel the contemplative gratitude and appreciation in the quiet reading of the last lines of "the coat of many colors that my mama made for me, made just for me."
"In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" gets at some of the same emotional palette in the form of a bittersweet waltz. The basic mix of feelings is suggested in the duality of the title. It plays as a fond remembrance of her youth, but does not have the ring of simple sentimentality like for example "Waltz Across Texas." The notes she picks to sing the title have the subtext of pain built right in.
Waltzes are dance music, but it is not particularly something you'd expect to hear when you go out dancing. They wouldn't play it at Gilley's, and you probably wouldn't play it at a wedding reception. You could dance to this, but it is more like something you would do in private, physically leading a lover through your intimate psychological terrain.
Lyrically it is more general than "Coat" and therefore not quite as good, but musically it is just as good or slightly better for not having to support the weight of the detailed narrative. Both songs get past the cheap emotional sentimental sediment of songs about the good old days, and do it with style and personality and an indelible depth of resonance.
"Coat of Many Colors / In the Good Old Days (when times were bad)"
The Essential Dolly Parton
DOLLY PARTON PHOTOS
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