Country singer Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 sassy country-pop track about a slut-shamed single mom who clap-backed hard at her haters titled “Harper Valley PTA” was the singer’s biggest career hit.
First, it scored her the number one spot on both country and pop charts, making her the first woman to do so. She owned that feat until Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” duplicated the success in 1981. Second, it won her the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Vocal Performance and a CMA Award for Single of the Year. It also earned nominations in the pop genre.
Decades later, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.”
Meaning Behind The Song
“Harper Valley PTA” tells the story of a mini-skirt-loving single mom named Mrs. Johnson, who was slut shamed by the holier-than-thou members of the Parent Teacher Association through a letter. The note said that she wore her dresses way too high. She drank and ran wild around with men, and they didn’t think she should be raising her little girl that way.
The most insulting part was that they had her teenage daughter deliver it to her. So, she showed up at one PTA meeting, sporting her trademark miniskirt, and called them out on their hypocrisy one by one.
According to the song’s writer, Tom T. Hall, it was actually based on a true story. Back when he was a child, around 8 or 9, there was the same free-spirited mom of one of his classmates in their small town of Olive Hill in Kentucky.
The local school board didn’t approve of her “modern ways,” and they were taking out their frustrations on her daughter. So she, too, showed up at a PTA meeting and berated every member for their indiscretions – an unheard move of that time.
He said, “I never thought anyone would say, ‘Hey, I’m doing OK. Leave me alone.’” He then wrote the song 20 years later.
There were a couple of cultural references that Hall injected into the song. The short hemlines were in reference to the miniskirt and mini-dress that were gaining popularity then. Peyton Place was a TV show based on a small town that hides its scandals and moral hypocrisy behind a placid facade. It was in its fourth season when the song was released. Lastly, the song’s final line was a popular catchphrase from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
In 1968, women were still miles behind in rights, and the song perfectly tapped into their anger toward society’s double standards. It was a sassy wake-up call that no one should put people down simply because of their appearance.
Catch Jeanne C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” in the video below.
Jeannie C Riley