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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Morgan Byrn
If I were to walk into a classroom right now and holler “Dolly Parton,” most of the students would probably know who I was talking about. Many kids know her as the lady who sends free books. But did you know people around the world know Dolly as the Queen of Country Music? Let’s take a look at this amazing Tennessean.
Parton family photo, taken from Dolly Parton's official website dollyparton.com.
Replica of Parton family cabin located at Dollywood. Courtesy of Visit My Smokies.
Dolly Rebecca Parton was born on January 19, 1946. She was born in a log cabin near the Little Pigeon River in East Tennessee. Dolly was the fourth of twelve children! Her whole family lived in a one room log cabin and were very poor. In fact, when she was born, they had no money to pay the doctor. Her dad gave the doctor a sack of cornmeal as payment. In the Appalachian Mountains, it was normal for people who didn’t have a lot of money to use goods as payment. Her mother would pass the time by telling and singing mountain folk tales to her children. Dolly credited her mother with her love of music from an early age. Her dad worked hard to support her big family. Dolly said that even though he couldn’t read, he was the smartest person she knew. She credited him with her hard work ethic and business smarts.
One of the many guitars owned by Dolly Parton, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Growing up, Dolly loved to sing and play musical instruments. Her uncle gave Dolly her first guitar at the age of eight. She also sang in her grandfather’s church choir. When she was ten, she sang on a radio program in Knoxville, TN. When she was thirteen, she made her way to Nashville where she sang at the Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry was a very popular radio program. It is still going strong today! That performance would change her life. She just knew that she had to be a singer. When she graduated high school, Dolly moved to Nashville to become a star. Unfortunately, people didn’t just become stars overnight. It took a lot of hard work and lots of failures before Dolly became famous. One of her first jobs was as the duet partner of Porter Wagner on his TV show. After that, she became a household name! She even got her own show called Dolly in 1976. Dolly was known for wearing bedazzled and colorful outfits!
Dolly wearing the pantsuit on her show Dolly. She is singing with her guest Kenny Rogers. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Pantsuit worn by Dolly Parton on her show Dolly, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Dolly became rich and famous, but she never forgot her home. Many of her songs focus on growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains and her family. “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Coat of Many Colors” are two of her most popular songs. Dolly also never forgot about the people of her home state.
Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors Album, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Here in Tennessee we know Dolly not just as the Queen of Country Music, but also as one of the most generous people too. One of the first things Dolly did to help the people of her hometown of Sevierville was to open Dollywood in 1986. Dollywood is a theme park that hires many local people to work there. Dollywood and her other business helped to bring in many tourists throughout the year. This increased the local economy. In 1995, she noticed that in her home county of Sevier the reading levels of the students were not high. She had an idea, one inspired by her father. Her father was never able to go to school and he never learned to read. She couldn’t help her dad as a child, but she could help the children of Sevier County. If she gave every child a book to read, they could have the chance to learn to read.
Imagination Library Book Collage taken from the Official Imagination Library Page.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library started in her hometown that same year. Every child would receive a book on the day they were born and then every month until their fifth birthday. Her program was a huge success! In 2004, the governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, made it a statewide program. It became so popular that states around the country picked up the program. By 2019, children in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and The Republic of Ireland enjoyed receiving books from Dolly! In 2018, Dolly Parton was invited to read her story Coat of Many Colors to children at the Library of Congress. It was to celebrate the 100 millionth book given to a child. That book now sits on a shelf in the Library of Congress. In 2020, the Imagination Library was able to celebrate giving out their 150 millionth book.
Dolly has worked hard all her life. Because of this, she can give back to her Tennessee community, places, and people all around the world. If you ask a Tennessean, many will say they want to be a bit like Dolly Parton, the Queen of Tennessee.
Print of Dolly Parton, Taken from the collection of the Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Country Music - a genre of music that comes from the folk style of the Southern United States.
Appalachian Mountains - the mountain range that runs from New Brunswick all the way down to Northern Alabama.
Folk Tales - stories that are passed down through the generations orally, told out loud, among people. These stories can travel far from where they originated. Like the stories brought to America by immigrants.
Grand Ole Opry - first started as a radio program for Country Music in 1925. It became hugely popular and moved its show to the Ryman Auditorium in 1943. It is the longest running broadcast in the United States.
Tourist - someone who is traveling to a place usually for fun.
Economy - the way goods, services, and money are used in a particular area.
What did Dolly Parton’s father pay the doctor that delivered her?
When did Dolly move to Nashville?
Put these events in Dolly Parton’s life in order: Singing at the Grand Ole Opry, Imagination Library, moving to Nashville to sing, Dollywood opens.
Why do you think the Imagination Library is so popular?
You can watch Dolly Parton read her story Coat of Many Colors at the Library of Congress - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjY69RCxaM8
Dolly is known for her colorful outfits on stage! Design an outfit that you would wear on stage to sing.
To learn more about Dolly’s Imagination Library check here - https://imaginationlibrary.com/
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
5th Grade Standards
5.51- Discuss the development of the music industry in Tennessee, including (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028): • Country music (e.g., Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and the Carter family) • Blues music (e.g., W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith) • Rock ‘n’ roll (e.g., Elvis Presley, Stax Records, and Sun Studio)
5.52- Identify influential Tennesseans from the late 20th century, including: • Al Gore, Jr. • Wilma Rudolph • Alex Haley • Oprah Winfrey • Dolly Parton
5.53- Compare and contrast the three grand divisions of Tennessee in terms of the following: • Major industries (e.g., Eastman, FedEx, and Nissan) • Tourism (e.g., Bristol Motor Speedway, Civil War sites, and Graceland) • Agriculture and livestock (e.g., soybeans in West TN, tobacco in Middle TN, and dairy in East TN) • Geography (i.e., Gulf Coastal Plains, the Nashville Basin, the Highland Rim, the Cumberland Plateau, the Great Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains)
Morgan Byrn is the Family Programs Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.