As well as being a singer, businesswoman and all-round icon, Dolly Parton is a celebrated songwriter with a gift for seamlessly pairing the darkest of tales with the catchiest of tunes.
From Jolene the bank worker who she begged not to steal her husband Carl, to songs about suicide, death and poverty, Dolly’s hits have never failed to tell an emotional story.
In her latest book – Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics – the 74-year-old icon shares the inspiration behind her epic back catalogue.
And one of the most heartbreaking moments is her recollection of the events that inspired her 1971 hit Coat of Many Colours, the lyrics for which she wrote on a tour bus on the back of a dry cleaning receipt.
The song tells of a poverty-stricken mother who lovingly makes her daughter a coat using rags in all different colours.
As she works, she tells her daughter the Bible tale of Joseph and his coat of many colours, instilling in her why she should be proud of her little jacket.
Dolly sang: “Although we had no money/Oh, I was rich as I could be/In my coat of many colours/My momma made for me.
“So with patches on my britches/And holes in both my shoes/In my coat of many colours/I hurried off to school.”
And the story is completely autobiographical, with Dolly recalling how pleased she was until the bullies at school tormented her over her rag coat.
She tried to explain that it had been made with love, which was more valuable than money, and to tell them the story of Joseph. But all they saw was a coat made of rags.
For a young Dolly, their cruelty was beyond comprehension – especially when they tortured her by locking her in a pitch black cupboard.
She writes: “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.
“It’s amazing how kids can be cruel without knowing that they are. When I was feeling bad enough as it was, they locked me in the coat closet and wouldn’t let me out. And I was so afraid of the dark as a kid.
“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.”
Devastated, she asked her mum why she had ‘sort of fibbed’, and was once again told that wealth has nothing to do with money and everything to do with love.
The lyrics continue: “And I told ’em all the story/Momma told me while she sewed/And how my coat of many colours/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 colours/My momma made for me/Made just for me.”
Dolly’s song ended up being made into a film and a school book aimed at teaching children to accept each others’ differences.
And looking back, the star is now thankful for what was one of the most difficult parts of her childhood.
She adds: “You never know when you’re going through things what is actually going to turn out to be a blessing. So it’s worth the suffering.”
*Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics is available in now bookshops and online.