Harper Valley PTA
|"Harper Valley P.T.A."|
|Single by Jeannie C. Riley|
|from the album Harper Valley P.T.A.|
|B-side||"Yesterday All Day Long Today"|
|Genre||Country, Country pop|
|Songwriter(s)||Tom T. Hall|
|Jeannie C. Riley singles chronology|
"Harper Valley P.T.A." is a country song written by Tom T. Hall which in 1968 became 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 was Riley's debut hit and only chart topper, making her the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles charts with the same song (but not at the same time), a feat that would not be repeated until Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" 13 years later in 1981. It was also Riley's only Top 40 pop hit.
Riley sings a story about Mrs. Johnson, a "Harper Valley widowed wife" whose teenage daughter, a student at the junior high school, comes home one day with a note for her mother signed by the PTA secretary, in which they scold her for "wearing your dresses way too high", for reports about her drinking and running around with multiple men, and that she shouldn't be raising her daughter that way. Outraged, Mrs. Johnson decides to pay an unannounced visit to the PTA, who happened to be holding a meeting that afternoon.
To the PTA's surprise, Mrs. Johnson, again wearing a miniskirt, walks in and addresses the meeting, exposing a long list of indiscretions on the part of the members, most of whom were in attendance:
- Bobby Taylor, who, aroused by her mini-skirt, had asked Mrs. Johnson for a date seven times (Mrs. Johnson also mentions Bobby's wife, who "seems to use a lot of ice" in his absence, the implication being that she is entertaining her own lover while her husband is out);
- Mr. Baker, whose secretary had to leave town for an undisclosed reason (the implication being that she was pregnant with his child);
- Widow Jones, who leaves her window blinds wide open and little to onlookers' imaginations;
- Mr. Harper, who was absent from the meeting because "he stayed too long at Kelly's Bar again"; and
- Shirley Thompson, who also has a drinking problem, as evidenced by gin on her breath.
In the final stanza of the song, Riley states that the story is true, and in the final line identifies herself as the daughter of Mrs. Johnson when she sings, "...the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA".
The song makes two references to short hemlines ("you're 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 P.T.A." was released.
The final line of the song ("..the day my mama 'socked it to' the Harper Valley PTA") was a reference to "Sock it to me!", a very popular catch-phrase frequently used in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. According to Shelby Singleton, producer of Riley's record, this line was changed at the last minute, at the suggestion of his "wife at the time".
Country singer Margie Singleton had asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to Bobbie Gentry's Grammy-winning hit "Ode to Billie Joe", which Gentry wrote and recorded in 1967, and which Singleton had covered that year. After driving past a school called Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, not far from his then-home in Franklin, Hall noted the name, altering it to "Harper Valley" when he wrote the song. 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 version was an immediate smash; Capitol Records did release Spears' version the same week, but it failed to chart. Singleton released it as a track on her album Margie Singleton's Harper Valley PTA, but it was not released as a single.
In 2005, Hall noted that he had witnessed a similar scenario when he was a child in Olive Hill, Kentucky, in the mid-1940s; the mother of one of Hall's classmates had drawn the ire of local school board members for her modern ways, and the school was taking out their frustrations on her daughter. The mother gave a verbal tongue-lashing at the school, an iconoclastic move that was unheard of at the time.
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. The melody is essentially the same as that of the Gentry song, but Gentry seemingly was never informed or given any credit by Hall. The single's jump from 81 to 7 in its second week on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August 1968 is the decade's highest climb into that chart's Top Ten. Riley's version won her a Grammy for the Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. Her recording was also nominated for "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year" in the pop field.
The song later inspired an eponymous 1978 motion picture and short-lived 1981 television series, both starring Barbara Eden playing the heroine of the story, Mrs. Johnson, who now had a first name, Stella.
In the 1970s, Riley became a born-again Christian, and though she briefly distanced herself from the song when she began singing gospel music, she never excluded it from her concerts, and it was always her most requested and popular number. She titled her 1980 autobiography From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, and released a gospel album in 1981 with the same title.
In 1984 Riley recorded a sequel song, "Return to Harper Valley", which was also written by Tom T. Hall, but failed to chart.
In the sequel, Riley sings as Mrs. Johnson herself instead of her daughter, who now has two children of her own. After buying a ticket to the high school dance (along with a chance to win a Stray Cats album), Mrs. Johnson decides to attend, only this time she wears a full-length dress. She remarks how some people in Harper Valley changed for the better:
- The formerly adulterous and abusive Bobby Taylor was now fully devoted to his wife;
- Mr. Harper and Shirley Thompson both quit drinking and married one another;
- Mr. Baker and his erstwhile secretary also married;
while others did not:
- A Mr. Kelly (mentioned in the original song as a bar owner) died of cirrhosis and brain damage as he never overcame his own alcoholism;
- Widow Jones and an unnamed young man were killed in a car crash when she "missed a curve on Lover's Lane".
At the dance, Mrs. Johnson notices the band's drummer using cocaine and an adult man selling marijuana in the parking lot, but then when she sees the students' uninhibited behavior she initially becomes so disgusted she storms home to get a gun, but once there she decides to pray for them instead. Now looking back with regret on her own misspent youth, Mrs. Johnson decides to attend the next PTA meeting the following afternoon and voice 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.
- South African singer Maria recorded it on the 1968 Goodbye Jimmy Goodbye album.
- Delta Bluesman Clarence Carter released a cover on his 1969 album The Dynamic Clarence Carter.
- Stikkan Andersson wrote Swedish lyrics to the song. Entitled "Fröken Fredriksson", it was Björn Ulvaeus' second solo single (Polar POS 162)
- Inger Lise Rypdal recorded a Norwegian translation of the song, entitled "Fru Johnsen". The narrative is the same although the setting is more Norwegian; the PTA is replaced by the Board for High Morals 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?"
- 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 P.T.A." in retaliation to the scandal in which she and husband Jim Bakker were involved in the late 1980s.
- The song was 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.
- Singer Denise LaSalle covered the song on her 1973 album On The Loose, featuring steel guitar on an otherwise soul/R&B performance.
- "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 Singleton did not mention his then wife's name, it apparently was not Margie Singleton, for they had divorced by 1965.
- "In the Words of Tom T. Hall".
- 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 (2nd ed.). Record Research. p. 291.
- Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–2001. Record Research. p. 205.
- "Cash Box Top 100 Singles, September 14, 1968". Archived from the original on August 12, 2014. Retrieved July 14, 2017.
- "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Harper Valley PTA". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
- "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". Archived from the original on October 9, 2016. Retrieved July 14, 2017.