Written by Tom T. Hall
Here be sassiness. First, I love the middle initial. Intended to make you sit up and pay respect? Or an attempt to be different than the one hundred other Jeannes/Jeanies/Jeans then working in country music world? No matter. It worked on both levels.
"Harper Valley P.T.A." was a gigantic dominates-the-playlist-for-weeks kind of hit. Though not the first straight country number to rise to the top of the pop charts, it was one of the few to do so after the two genres diverged in the early 1960s—and as the rest of American society was doing some divergin’ of its own. Jeannie’s penchant for miniskirts and high boots translated on both sides of the cultural divide. The song’s wide success only proves that, while we all had differences, nobody liked a self-righteous busybody. (If only that attitude still prevailed…)
Rock has its share of story songs, but country does the genre better. Think "El Paso," or "One Piece at a Time," or if you’ve got the guts, "Ode to Billy Joe." Maybe this is because of the oral tradition’s influence on southern culture. (Let’s face it, "oral tradition" means something very different in rock.) "Harper Valley P.T.A." is one of the classics, complete with humor, name-calling, a twist near the end, and a real sense of mood—you can easily visualize the reactions of the characters.
For the uninitiated, "Harper Valley P.T.A." kicks off with Riley’s big voice throwing out sass from Word One. A Harper Valley widowed wife gets a letter from the P.T.A. bringing attention to her short skirts, drinking, and general running wild. Mini-skirt in place, she heads down to the P.T.A. meeting—I think we can assume in very high heels—and proceeds to spend two verses cleaning her out a place. The Association has many skeletons in the janitor’s closet. Infidelity. Secretaries mysteriously leaving town. Rampant alcoholism. The Widow Jones' exhibitionism. To say nothing of Riley dragging out her vowels in the best flirtatious manner. All hail small-town living! It’s as entertaining as a pair of cut-off shorts up until then, and worthy enough of success. But Riley throws in a money shot—the kind of memorable line that separates million-seller from six million-seller:
No I wouldn't put you onFist-pumping triumph and a Flip Wilson reference! Small wonder it crossed over.
Because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.
Riley had kicked around Nashville a few years as a wannabe before "Harper Valley P.T.A." vaulted her onto TV, radio, and the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. As is often the case with artists and their breakthrough songs, Riley hated "Harper Valley P.T.A." at first sight. Not country enough. She recorded it in two takes, with the "socked it to…" line added in the second. Less than an hour’s work for Grammy glory and, more significantly, one of the bigger singles of the decade. A string of country singles followed, enough to fill a K-Tel collection. After a born again experience in the mid-1970s, she sang gospel, then found her way into the growing contemporary Christian scene. No doubt the new direction curtailed her sass some.
Video, video. The song was a hit pre-video, but it had a rare distinction for a pop song: it inspired a movie, and not just Robbie Benson in the NBC Movie Event Ode to Billy Joe, either. Ten years after its musical success "Harper Valley P.T.A." returned as the title and plot of the world's only hit Barbara Eden movie. A sitcom followed. That's a lot of baggage for any song, and the gods have condemned Eden to an old age of being leered at by Larry King.