The Full, Heart-Wrenching Story Behind Dolly Parton's 'Coat of Many Colors' — 'They Locked Me in the Coat Closet'

While many of Dolly Parton‘s songs are pulled from the prolific songwriter’s “big imagination,” many still are inspired by things that really happened to her. The song “Coat of Many Colors” was inspired by a lesson Parton learned as a child. The full story is even more heartbreaking, but Parton feels the incident was “a blessing” because she was then called to write about bullying and acceptance to help other children.

When Dolly Parton got her coat of many colors

Parton grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Where she and her family lived, there were “a lot of poor people,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. But, at some point, the “Backwoods Barbie” singer and her siblings started going to a bigger school with children who “had more things than we did.”

To keep her warm at school, Parton’s mother made her a coat made out of scrap pieces of material.

“In order to make me proud of that little coat, I know now, she told me the story about Joseph from the Bible and his coat of many colors,” she wrote. “So I thought, ‘Well, if it’s from the Bible, and Joseph was an important person, it has to be very special and important.’”

Dolly Parton’s classmates made fun of her for her coat of many colors

As the song goes, when Parton got to school, her classmates made fun of the coat her mother made her. Young Dolly was shocked.

“I had seen so much more in that coat than what Mama had sewn, things sewn into my body, my soul, my everything,” she wrote. “Mama had made it and told the story and made it all seem so real. 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.”

Parton tried to relay the message her mother had told her: “It ain’t about golden riches. You can be rich in love. In all sorts of wonderful things, you can be rich.” But her schoolmates didn’t understand.

“It’s amazing how kids can be cruel without knowing that they are,” she wrote.

After making fun of Parton, her classmates proceeded to lock her in the coat closet and wouldn’t let her 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,” wrote Parton.

After school, Parton was “even kind of hurt and angry at my mama, because I felt that she had sort of told me a fib.” But her mother assured her that her coat was special, whether her classmates knew it or not. By the end of their talk, Parton was once again feeling proud of her coat of many colors.  

‘God works in strange and mysterious ways’

“That little song is like a world of things,” wrote Parton. “It teaches about bullying, about love, about acceptance, about good parents. That little story has even been written into a schoolbook to teach children about being different. You have to accept everything and everybody.”

At the time, Parton thought, “Why is this happening?” But now she feels the incident occurred so she’d be inspired to write “Coat of Many Colors.”

“It really is true that ‘God works in strange and mysterious ways His wonders to perform,’” she wrote. “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.”

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