#25: Dolly Parton - “Coat of Many Colors” (1971)

A scary thing occurred to me, a couple of songs into Coat of Many Colors, and in the end it chewed and chewed at me so much that I had to know for sure: has my comfort music for the last decade been secretly right wing?

I spent the next few days working my way through the annals of seventies-thru-early-nineties British folk that I mostly listened to while writing a dissertation of some form or another, and I was genuinely a bit scared about what I was going to find. And it turns out it’s okay - by and large, they’re as lefty as they’ve ever been.

But you never know with folk, do you? It’s got that weird combination of being avidly anti-authority and heavily associated with protest and the fate of the downtrodden, and then at the same time looking backwards for its stories and influences, and having that endless fascination with pretty maidens down by the hedgerow on a May morning. In England in particular, being backwards-looking is a dangerous game to play, because it can end up being a dogwhistle to certain utter reprobates - I remember back in 2010 when Nick Griffin of the BNP (super right wing UKIP-precursor for those of you mercifully unaware of them) tried to tell people that he really liked English folk music, and English folk music told him unequivocally to fuck off. But they did have to say it, sadly: nostalgia and conservatism can quite easily go hand in hand; and the careful treading of that line is something I’ve always particularly liked about this particular genre. How can nostalgia be radical? Say no more, friends - it exists and I love it. But there is an undercurrent to music about common country folk of yore that could lurch very far to the political right if it isn’t careful.

Which brings us back round to early ‘70s Dolly. Vocally, she’s a knockout. In terms of how Coat of Many Colors *sounds*, we are smack bang in the middle of my comfort zone. It’s like a warm bath - I’m a sucker for that acoustic storytelling, with the fiddle and the bassline and that strong, interesting voice. But also, I am not sure that this is an album whose writer would have, at time of recording, told Nick Griffin to fuck off.

Or maybe I’m being too harsh: after all, “Coat of Many Colors” was inspired by Parton’s own youth; she’s well known for her charity work; and, lest we forget, I’m not in fact the boss of her. But equally, you know, there’s a worldview here, and on this album, it is centerstage.

You know. “One is only poor, if they choose to be.” “If I Lose My Mind”, which is about a lady who comes back to live with her mother after a man… well, either he fancies someone else and tries to tell her to go away, or there’s a full-blown orgy, you could interpret the lyrics either way. “She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like)” which is what would happen if the narrator of “Jolene” grew a spine and decided to throw Jolene under a bus. And then, “The Mystery of the Mystery” which is a full-on God break, right where you’d change sides on the LP. One of those things is a set piece. All four of them and then some, on a ten-track CD that lasts just under half an hour, and now we’re getting into the territory of having a specific audience in mind.

And this is the point where my brain gets scrambled a bit, because I want to say that it’s a cultural difference between British folk and American country. Both of them tend to talk about ordinary people, often in small towns or rural places. Both of them look backwards as well as forwards – picking up their eighteenth-century stories alongside their rock or jazz bass. (In Coat of Many Colors, that’s “Early Morning Breeze”, which is a full-blown May Morning Early number.) But I want to say British folk has a good dose of anti-authoritarianism to it, whereas American country comes from this completely different base, this Tennessee or Oklahoma or Texas base of social conservatism and religious roots, with an emphasis on the American dream that I just find… jarring.

That base is there, of course. But I feel like Bruce Springsteen would have words with me if I tried to paint with that broad a brush. American folk is significantly broader than just that hallmarkedly southern approach. So I will just say this: that there is more than one way of rooting for the weaker person, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Coat of Many Colors makes different base assumptions to the ones I expected from the sound of it. Which means that… what I had previously thought as quite a broad range of musical experiences, is not in fact that. I’ve landed right back in my little ideological echo chamber again, whether I meant to be there or not. To me, Dolly Parton felt like her priorities were all wrong, all out of kilter. But I’m not going to turn around and tell her - forty-plus years into the past - that she’s not thought about things hard enough. I don’t want to call Coat of Many Colors wrong when it’s just not what I anticipated.

There’s a cliché, which is people describing their musical taste as “anything but rock or country”, and I’ve always thought that it’s code for “anything but misogyny and barn dancing”. This week, I’m turning that over in my head, and seeing where it leaks. Maybe it’s just not much fun to have your echo chamber unexpectedly broken.