Dolly Parton’s Philosophy of Social Cooperation
“I’m Not the Dalai Lama, But I’ll Try”
By Darin DeWitt
Dolly Parton’s exceptionally diverse audience has long been a source of wonder. As Fran Lebowitz often quips, “people who hate each other love Dolly Parton.” When performing in London in 1983, Parton expressed surprise “at the wide diversity of people” in her audience, ranging from “royalty in fine gowns” to “teenage punks with lime-green hair and safety pins through their noses.” Of her most recent U.S. tour in 2016, Professor Jessica Wilkerson recounts: “it was the most diverse place I’ve ever been. I was seeing a multi-racial audience. People wearing cowboy hats and boots. I was seeing people in drag. Church ladies. Lesbians holding hands. Little girls who were there with their families.” What makes Dolly Parton special is not simply her diverse audience but, as Sarah Smarsh puts it, her ability to “create a connection among seemingly unlikely friends.”
What’s Dolly’s secret? I argue that the philosophy of the self-proclaimed “Dolly-Mama” – a riff on Dalai Lama – explains her ability to bring all walks of life together. Parton challenges her audience to look past her bedazzled surface and engage with her philosophy of life. As she sings in “Backwoods Barbie” (2008), “Don’t judge me by the cover cause I’m a real good book.” When fans dig into Parton’s songs, books, films, and autobiography, they uncover an egalitarian vision of social cooperation.
According to John Rawls – the most influential political philosopher of the past century – an egalitarian society is characterized by three principles of justice: equal basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and reciprocity. Moreover, he argues that we would unanimously choose these three principles of social organization if placed behind a veil, where we are ignorant about our own social position, group membership, natural talents, and personal values. In such a position, we would be compelled to put ourselves into the shoes of everyone in society, for we could be any of them. In real life, we find it hard to be this impartial. But Parton, despite all her success, communicates Rawlsian principles.
Let’s explore the three principles of justice and see how Parton teaches us to join her behind the veil.
According to the first principle of justice, a fair society is one where all members command equal basic rights and liberties, which they need to pursue their concept of a good life free from discrimination. Parton is sensitive to the psychological tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. She surmises: “I suppose if everybody in the world looked exactly alike except for one person who had brown eyes instead of blue, that brown-eyed man would be the devil incarnate.” Many of Parton’s songs encourage us to see the common humanity among people who are often treated as “others” and thus prone to discrimination including Appalachian recluses (“Joshua” ), poor people (“Backwoods Barbie” ), transgender people (“Travelin’ Thru” ), and migrant workers (“Deportee” ), along with women who are sexually liberated (“Just Because I’m A Woman” ), politically active (“19th Amendment” ), and unwed mothers (“Down From Dover” ).
Parton describes her favorite song, “The Coat of Many Colors” (1971), as a story about “respecting the differences in all of us.” This story is important to Parton – she performs it at every live show and she adapted the song into a children’s book as well as a pair of films. In all these versions, Parton promotes tolerance and acceptance of others. In her children’s book, she tells us that “those who choose to bully just don’t know how to handle somebody different from themselves.” And, in the second film adaptation, Parton plays the “Painted Lady,” a “town trollop” treated like trash by businessowners and churchgoers who acts as a guardian angel for a younger version of Dolly. In this way, “The Coat of Many Colors” teaches us to refrain from judging others. This refusal to judge is a core principal in Parton’s life, which she affirms by declining all requests to judge everything from songwriting contests to drag balls to dog shows.
The second principle of justice is fair equality of opportunity, or, in Parton’s own words: “people should be allowed to be themselves and to show the gifts they have, and be able to be acknowledged for that and to be paid accordingly.”
Parton recognizes that fair equality of opportunity requires equal educational opportunities. Forty years ago, Parton began to actively support this goal by promoting educational achievement in Eastern Tennessee through college scholarships, high school graduation incentives, and more. As part of these efforts, she learned that educational inequalities are present early on:
“some kids who entered first grade could already read and write and had a huge jump on the others. The others were not dumb or any different, really, except that their parents had not exposed them to reading or helped them to love reading and learning. … To compound the problem, the teachers would give gold stars to the ones who were ahead, making the others feel that something was wrong with them and that they were dumb. … Boy, could I relate to that, having been raised poor in the hills, and remembering how many times ‘poor’ had been mistaken for dumb or less important or beneath the richer kids.”
In response, Parton founded the Imagination Library, a nonprofit organization which seeks to eliminate these disparities by providing children with a book a month from birth to kindergarten. She explains: “It hit me that if kids had books in the home, just maybe somebody would read to them and help them love books.” To date, the program has served 2 million children in five countries. Parton hopes that through the program’s continued expansion “every child in the world will have an opportunity for their dreams to come true.”
In her art, as in her philanthropy, Parton spotlights fair equality of opportunity. Lydia Hammesley shows that songs like “Mule Skinner Blues” (1970) model equal opportunity by “allowing women to inhabit stereotypically male terrain or adopt male attributes and actions.” And Parton herself sees the film 9 to 5 (1980), for which she wrote the theme song and appeared as a main character, as advocating “equal pay for equal work.”
The third principle of justice, known as the difference principle, endorses reciprocity. It says that inequalities are permissible only if they benefit the least well-off. For instance, doctors and lawyers can justify high salaries if that also helps raise the quality of medical care and access to legal aid for impoverished people. As Parton puts this point: “I really believe that if you’re lucky and fortunate enough, to be in a position to help, you should help.” And she stresses that when you help others, one of the rewards is that “you become a better person” too.
Since the 1970s, Parton has used her celebrity status to improve access to high-quality medical care, educational programs, and disaster relief in Eastern Tennessee. She speaks of her theme park, Dollywood, not only as an opportunity to honor the people of the Great Smoky Mountains and preserve their heritage, but also as economic engine for the community: “I love the fact that I am able to give something back and provide so many people with jobs where none existed before.” Parton has also improved the life of millions beyond East Tennessee through the Imagination Library and her million dollar donation to coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University, which contributed to the development of the Moderna vaccine. Parton sees reciprocity in her music as well, asserting that her “music’s designed to be like a ray of sunshine for all those folks in the dark.”
Finally, the reciprocity principle is premised on the idea that we do not morally deserve our advantages or disadvantages at the time of birth. Our life prospects are shaped by luck – for example, whether we are born with great intelligence or little, as a woman in matriarchy or patriarchy, or in a community that is economically booming versus stagnating.
In line with this idea, Parton claims that she was born with a gift for songwriting and she chalks up her success to luck and timing. When discussing her multi-generational family of musicians, she notes: “I am certainly not the first or most talented person in my family. I just happened to be the first to become famous.” And when recounting all the musicians she has met in Nashville, she reflects: “I have seen so many people with twice the talent that I’ll ever have work just as hard, been in this town just as long and still never have made it.” Parton recognizes that her life could have turned out quite differently. When filming Rhinestone (1984) in New York City, she wrapped a homeless man in a warm shawl. Her co-star Sylvester Stallone removed it, proclaiming: “Don’t you put that good shawl over that scum! He could have made something of himself. We did.” Parton confronted Stallone: “Hey, look! That could have been you, you ungrateful son of a bitch!”
Some people accept social inequalities by saying life is unfair, get over it. By envisioning a culture where we learn to recognize each other as free and equal, Dolly Parton and John Rawls say that we can do better! And this is why Parton’s concerts, as Wayne Bledsoe observes, lead to the “co-mingling” of people “whose philosophies were in opposition to each other.”
Darin DeWitt is an associate professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach. He studies how institutions, elites, and ideas shape American politics.
Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee. 2019. “Dolly Parton’s America.” WNYC Podcast.
Nick Geidner (director). 2020. The Library That Dolly Built. Land Grant Films.
Lydia Hammesley. 2020. Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Dolly Parton. 1994. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. New York: Harper Collins.
Dolly Parton. 2012. Dream More. New York: Riverhead Books.
Dolly Parton. 2016. The Coat of Many Colors. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
Randy Schmidt. 2017. Dolly on Dolly. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Sarah Smarsh. 2020. She Come By It Natural. New York: Simon and Schuster.