Harper Valley PTA
|"Harper Valley P.T.A."|
|Single by Jeannie C. Riley|
|from the album Harper Valley PTA|
|B-side||"Yesterday All Day Long Today"|
|Genre||Country, Country pop|
|Songwriter(s)||Tom T. Hall|
|Jeannie C. Riley singles chronology|
"Harper Valley PTA" is a country song written by Tom T. Hall which became, in 1968, a major international hit single for country singer Jeannie C. Riley. The song was originally recorded by Margie Singleton, on Ashley Records A 5000 in July, 1968. Riley's record sold over six million copies as a single. It made Riley the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles charts with the same song, a feat that would go un-repeated until Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" in 1981.
The singer is the junior high-school daughter of the widowed Mrs. Johnson. The story begins when the daughter brings home a note from the Harper Valley PTA, signed by the Secretary, which decries Mrs. Johnson's allegedly scandalous behavior. Examples of conduct the town views as offensive to moral standards include wearing short dresses, engaging in dalliances with men and "goin' wild". Mrs. Johnson is outraged and attends the PTA meeting that happens to be going on that afternoon. The members attending have a surprise when she walks in wearing a miniskirt; she then exposes a long list of indiscreet behavior (at least as severely afoul of the town's alleged moral standards as the PTA's accusations against her) on the part of numerous people, present or not. She concludes her smackdown by calling Harper Valley "a little Peyton Place" and labeling the PTA a bunch of hypocrites.
The song makes two references to short hemlines ("you've been wearing your dresses way too high"; "wore her miniskirt into the room") in reference to the miniskirt and the minidress, which had been gaining popularity in the four years since they were first introduced.
The expression "This is just a little Peyton Place" is a reference to the Peyton Place television show based on the earlier novel and film of the same name where a small town hides scandal and moral hypocrisy behind a tranquil facade. The show, then in the top 20 of Nielsen ratings, was in its fourth season when "Harper Valley PTA" was released.
In the final line of the song the singer reveals herself as Mrs. Johnson's daughter, with the line: "The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA", referring to the popular phrase of that period "Sock it to me" from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. According to producer Shelby Singleton, this line was changed at the last minute at the suggestion of his "wife at the time".
- "The country singer Margie Singleton asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to Bobby Gentry's Grammy-winning hit "Ode to Billie Joe", which she had covered the previous year, and which Gentry wrote and recorded in 1967. The melody is essentially the same as that of the Gentry song, but Gentry seemingly was never informed or given any credit by Hall. After driving past a school called Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, Hall noted the name and wrote "Harper Valley P.T.A." about a fictional confrontation between a young widow Stella Johnson and a local PTA group who objected to her manner of dress, social drinking, and friendliness with town's men folk. Jeannie C. Riley, who was working as a secretary in Nashville for Jerry Chesnut, got to hear the song and recorded it herself and it became a massive hit for her." 
Tom T. Hall reportedly first offered the song to Skeeter Davis, who declined. Plantation Records, the label on which Riley recorded the song, rush-released the single when they learned that both Billie Jo Spears and Margie Singleton had just recorded the song as well. Riley's record was an immediate smash; Capitol Records did release Spears' version the same week, but it failed to chart.
Hall later stated that his inspiration for the song came when one day he was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, not far from his then-home in Franklin. He liked the sound of the name and decided to write a song using a similar place name. He also reportedly wrote the song about Olive Hill, Kentucky, where Hall grew up.
The song was later the inspiration for a 1978 motion picture and a short-lived 1981 television series, both starring Barbara Eden, playing the heroine of the story, Mrs. Johnson—who now had a first name, Stella.
Several other songs in the Harper Valley PTA album told stories of some of the other characters from the title tune, including Mayor Harper, Widow Jones, and Shirley Thompson.
The classic Harper Valley PTA album cover shows a minidress-clad Riley—portraying Mrs. Johnson with PTA note in hand—standing beside a girl, who is portraying the teenage daughter of Mrs. Johnson.
In the 1970s, Riley became a born-again Christian, started to sing gospel music and briefly distanced herself from the song. However, she never dropped it from her concerts, and it was always her most requested and popular number.
Riley titled her 1980 autobiography From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, and released a gospel album in 1981 with the same title.
Riley recorded a sequel song, "Return to Harper Valley", in 1984 (also written by Hall) but it was not a commercial success.
In the sequel, Riley sings as Mrs. Johnson (instead of her daughter, as in the original). After purchasing a ticket to the high school dance (along with a chance to win a Stray Cats album) she decides to attend. This time she wears a full-length dress. She mentions how folks changed, some for the good (Bobby Taylor, who back in the day had repeatedly asked her for dates, was now paying attention to his wife; Mr. Harper and Shirley Thompson became a sober married couple; Mr. Baker and his secretary also married), and others for the bad (Mr. Kelly never stopped his alcohol abuse and died from cirrhosis and brain damage as a result, while "Widow Jones" and an unnamed young man died in a traffic accident when she "missed a curve on Lover's Lane").
Unfortunately, Mrs. Johnson notices prevalent substance abuse among the youth, and a grown man selling dope in the parking lot. She initially becomes so angry she thinks she might go home to get a gun; but, once home, she chooses to pray instead. After remembering her own wild behavior, she decides to attend the PTA meeting the following day and share her concerns.
- Cover versions of the song appear on albums by virtually every female country singer of the period; including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Norma Jean, Bobbi Martin, Lynn Anderson, Jeannie Seely, and Dottie West. It has been performed by Lorrie Morgan in concert and was also covered by Billy Ray Cyrus, one of very few male artists to do so.
- Stikkan Andersson wrote the Swedish lyrics. Entitled "Fröken Fredriksson", it was Björn Ulvaeus' second solo single (Polar POS 162)
- "Harper Valley PTA" was translated into Norwegian by Terje Mosnes, entitled "Fru Johnsen" and performed by Norwegian singer Inger Lise Rypdal. The story of the song is the same although the setting is more Norwegian; the PTA is replaced by the Board for High Morale and is part of the church. The song was censored for some time at the national broadcasting channel, due to the line: "Is it from this group I have to hear that I'm not fit, because the hem of my skirt is closer to that heaven that none of you will be allowed to enter?"
- Covered in Icelandic by Þuríður Sigurðardóttir
- Country singer Martina McBride covered it for the Desperate Housewives soundtrack album Music from and Inspired by Desperate Housewives.
- Radio personality Fez Whatley is often heard singing his own cover version on the Ron and Fez show, a version he used to sing for his family as a child.
- Sheb Wooley, in his alter-ego of "Ben Colder", produced and recorded a parody of the song, called "Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later The Same Day)".
- Tammy Faye Bakker recorded a protest song to the tune of "Harper Valley PTA" in retaliation to the scandal in which she and husband Jim Bakker were involved in the late 1980s.
- Used in Mad Men Season 6, Episode 10 "A Tale of Two Cities"
- Melinda Schneider and Beccy Cole covered the song on their album Great Women of Country (2014).
- Squeeze covered the song on their 2015 album Cradle to the Grave
- Debbie Rule, covered the song on her album Texas Girls (2015).
- "Harper Valley PTA Lyrics". Metrolyrics. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
- Haralovich, Mary Beth (1999). Television, History and American Culture. Duke University Press. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-8223-2394-5.
- Jarrett, Michael (2014). Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings. Wesleyan University Press. p. 119. ISBN 9780819574657. Retrieved April 22, 2017.
- Though Shelby Singleton did not mention his then-wife's name, it apparently was not Margie Singleton, since they had divorced by 1965.
- Songfacts of Harper Valley P.T.A. by Jeannie C. Riley
- "Billboard Hot 100 Charts – The Sixties/The Seventies", Record Research Inc, 1990
- [ Flavour of New Zealand, 8 November 1968]
- "SA Charts 1965–March 1989". Retrieved 5 September 2018.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 291.
- Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 205.
- Cash Box Top 100 Singles, September 14, 1968
- "Go-Set Magazine Charts". www.poparchives.com.au. Barry McKay. January 2007. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
- "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". collectionscanada.gc.ca.
- Cash Box Year-End Charts: Top 100 Pop Singles, December 28, 1968