Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

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

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison”

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album coverI listened to Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album “At Folsom Prison” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. June Carter, Marshall Grant, W.S. Holland, Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins, and the Statler Brothers joined Cash in two performances at the prison. From these live recordings, they selected 16 excellent tracks for the album. While I had some appreciation, I never really cared much for Johnny Cash. A week with this album changed my mind.

Cash’s signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” opens the album. The audience of prisoners dutifully keep silent until he finishes introduces himself, then they cheer. He fittingly starts with the “Folsom Prison Blues” which he had originally recorded in 1955. This narrative country song follows a standard country-blues chord progression of I-I-I-I7-IV-I-V7-I. Cash sings while strums acoustic guitar with a steady rhythm. The bass guitar bounces between the first and fifth note of the chord on each quarter note. A clean electric guitar punctuates with staccato syncopation. This electric guitar combined with the drums creates the railroad train rhythm of the song.

The lyrics tell the first person narrative of a man “stuck in Folsom Prison.” Often a song with this setting would have us feel sympathy for the prisoner. However, since this one “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” it’s difficult to feel to bad for him. Cash later said that he tried to think of the most evil reason to kill somebody. So, this isn’t a case of somebody being stuck in prison that didn’t deserve it.

“I hear the train a comin’ It’s rollin’ ’round the bend” introduces the train. ThisĀ  becomes a major symbol in the song. Cash uses the train to provide contrast with the prison. The prisoner hears the train go by routinely and envisions the passengers having a good time. He could accept his imprisonment were it not for this reminder of what he’s missing out on.

Well, I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a-movin’,
And that’s what tortures me.

The lines utilize an ABAB rhyme scheme. Throughout the song, the second and fourth lines are always end with a true rhyme and the first and third lines usually end with slant rhymes.

I also particularly liked “Cocaine Blues,” which is a cover of an old Red Arnall. Cash keeps the hyper tempo of the song, but gives the vocals a more human treatment. The chords travel along a simple I-V progression throughout until the final couplet. The song ends with a I-IV-II-V-I. This song also tells of a murderer imprisoned through a series of couplets.

Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.
I went right home and I went to bed,
I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head.

This man blames it on a mixture of jealousy, whiskey, and cocaine. He “shot her down because she made me sore. I thought I was her daddy but she had five more.” He closes the tale by advising the listeners to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.” In the original version, Red Arnall said it was okay to “drink all you want to, but let that cocaine be.”

During the second half of the album, Cash’s soon-to-be wife June Carter joins him to sing “Jackson.” This was a cover of a song by Billy Edd Wheeler. I enjoy Cash’s bit of flirting with Carter before they start the song, as well as her witty response. Much like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson” drives through a country-blues chord progression. The first two lines of each verse are I—I7, with the second two following I-IV-I-I-I-IV-V7-I. Again, the bass bounces through the first and fifth note of each chord emphasizing the rhythm. The drums also roll along in the background.

June also joins along in “Give My Love to Rose” which was written by Johnny Cash. They give an excellent performance at Folsom Prison, but I prefer the sound of the original 1957 single. We see here another chord progression built entirely on I, IV, and V chords. The first two lines of each verse are I-IV-I-I, and the second two are IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I. That makes this song a type of country-blues. This first-person narrative is actually a third-person tale. The speaker meets up with a dying man by the railroad track. The dying man had just finished serving his time in prison. He was “trying to get back to Louisiana to see (his) Rose and get to know (his) son.” The simple chorus gently delivers the strong emotion of the story.

Give my love to Rose, please won’t you mister.
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes.
Tell my boy his daddy’s so proud of him
And don’t forget to give my love to Rose.

This was a tremendous album that gave me an appreciation for the work and performance of Johnny Cash. I’m ready now to revisit his other material that I’ve written off before. The songs provide examples of great songwriting. They tell stories about unlikely characters that can be appreciated at a surface level; They also present additional layers using symbols and implied meaning. All elements of the performance are there to support the lead vocal, which is there to tell the story. That songs of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” demonstrate how much you can achieve with the most basic elements when the songwriting is strong.