When Dolly Parton shouts "HERE I AM!" in the song of the same name, a woman emerges from the cocoon of girlishness. You can hardly imagine a phrase sounding more powerful or meaningful. These words have physical power, especially as they come tumbling out of the painted mouth of a pretty Southern girl whose voice lilts with each syllable in an involuntary act of self-protection, concealing her intelligence with an "aw shucks," keeping her mouth open wide, losing her own identity in that of her performing partner Porter Wagoner, trying to follow the rules of a working-class genre even as her mere appearance shattered them.
"Here I Am" appears on Coat of Many Colors, Dolly's first hit record, released in 1971. It seems a natural lead-off track — proud, assertive, bombastic — but instead it's tucked in a cupboard as the penultimate song. And as powerful as her proclamation sounds, it's tempered somewhat by the other lyrics, where Dolly divulges that she's here to help and love, not to get what she wants. The patriarchy can live another day.
But her offers to comfort and mother wither in the face of such obscenity. Look at that album cover, where an asexual child (Dolly? Joseph?) smiles without reservation clad in a drab smock of brown and blue. It mocks the title. For poor mountain folk like Dolly, many equals two. A coat of two colors, ain't I proud? The easy shuffle of the title track finds Dolly relishing her poverty, her "patches on my britches/ holes in my shoes" as her classmates laugh at her. "I couldn't understand it/ For I felt I was rich/ And I told them all the love my momma sewed in every stitch," she coos, shaken with fear but not shame, because this gal has the love of momma and Jesus in the hem of her garment. Thou shall not covet, nor shall thou be ashamed.
Within the context of the album, "Here I Am" seems less about Dolly's self-identification as a woman and more about finding a man who will be a husband and finding a hat on which to hang her heart. But there's an ambition in her voice — her eyes shut tight but her fists balled tighter — that no amount of homemaker dreaming can hide. This is Rosy the Riveter with two-dollar boots, hundred-dollar looks and a few thousand songs in her head. No man can quench that yearning, though many are dumb enough to try, blind to the fierceness that lurks behind those easy eyes and hungry breasts, and unable to recognize the sad sag of a smile that can never be satisfied.