Country Music Reclamation Project: Coat of Many Colors

I’ve been thinking a lot about my family, with Christmas coming up, and of Christmases past. Whether I was bad or good for the entire year, I was always spoiled by my parents on December 25. I realize now how hard they worked to shelter and feed our family, clothe us and keep us healthy, and still get me that electronic football game or Hot Wheels SuperCharger Race Set. I’ve always felt fortunate, and that feeling has little to do with money.

Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors is reportedly autobiographical, and about as clearly written as any work about the realization that you’re poor, at least as seen through the eyes of others. But the song’s beauty — besides its melody and Dolly’s performance — lies in the singer’s rejection of what others think of her and the realization that there are some gifts you can’t put a price on.

Coat of Many Colors (performed by Dolly Parton)
Written by Dolly Parton

Back through the years
I go wanderin’ once again
Back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use
There were rags of many colors
Every piece was small
And I didn’t have a coat
And it was way down in the fall
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of

As she sewed, she told a story
From the Bible, she had read
About a coat of many colors
Joseph wore and then she said
Perhaps this coat will bring you
Good luck and happiness
And I just couldn’t wait to wear it
And momma blessed it with a kiss

My coat of many colors
That my momma made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

So with patches on my britches
And holes in both my shoes
In my coat of many colors
I hurried off to school
Just to find the others laughing
And making fun of me
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

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

Yeah, the song is a little corny, but it always makes me cry. It’s a valuable lesson to learn: to be proud of what you are, not what you have. Especially in times when you don’t have money.

I recently watched a video of my Dad describing my Mom in elementary school, how she and her sisters would wear sewn-together flour bags as winter leggings. She would never have denied it — it was a source of pride to her, how practical her family was during some desperate times, how homemade clothing was better, warmer and more comfortable. She made amazing dresses for my sisters, who seem from photos to be the best-dressed kids in their school. (She made me a few sweaters and shirts over the years, but I think my usual jeans and t-shirts were even cheaper.)

I’m also thinking of those who are having a particularly rough Christmas this year. I hope the new year brings them “good luck and happiness.”

And I hope that the time has now passed in which we think of poor people as people who haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe we can consider that poor people, for the most part, play by the rules, and that is a much harder way to become wealthy. We’ve been reminded enough this year about the few who took a shortcut to wealth, and how little value they bring to our world.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and may your airing of grievances and feats of strength make this the best Festivus ever.

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