In her song “Coat of Many Colors,” what does Dolly Parton mean by these lines: …one is only poor Only if they choose to be…But I was rich as I could be.

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dolly Parton is a singer and actress who has had a successful career despite her very humble beginnings. The song to which you refer is one of many songs Dolly has written about growing up poor, and she never writes about it as a terrible tragedy or as limiting her in any way. In fact, she sees her poverty as a blessing.

In "Coat of Many Colors," she writes about a coat her mother made her from a bunch of rags; at one of her concerts she introduced the song as being "a true story about a little patchwork coat my Momma made me from a box of rags." It is a narrative song, which means it tells a story. It was fall and young Dolly did not have a coat, so her mother made her one from scraps from the rag box. Dolly was so thankful and says  

...I just couldn't wait to wear it
And momma blessed it with a kiss

Unfortunately, the other children made fun of her for wearing a coat made of rags. Though Dolly tried to explain to them that it was a coat made with love in every stitch and was therefore better than anything they were wearing, the teasing continued. She tried to explain how she felt about being poor to the others:

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

The lines to which you refer in your question have a line between them: is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be.

Clearly what Dolly means in these lines is that having money is not what determines whether a person is rich or poor. Though Dolly's family was poor in terms of material possessions, they were rich in love and thankfulness for what they had. Conversely, people who have plenty of wealth and possessions could be considered poor if they do not appreciate what they have or do not demonstrate charity.

Being "poor" to Dolly is not having a grateful, loving heart. She had a mother who loved her enough to laboriously make her a special coat to keep her warm; that made her a rich little girl, not a poor one. 

(On a personal note, I have been to the Dollywood theme park many times and seen the replica of the tiny cabin in the mountains in which she grew up; she was unbelievably poor. She is a beloved figure in Tennessee because she remembers her past and does what she can to help others overcome whatever obstacles they face in life. She has lots of money; however, even if she did not, she would not consider herself to be poor.)