50 Years Of Sockin' It To The PTA

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 19, 2018 3:38 pm

A single mom who wears miniskirts is the scorn of a small town. Fifty years ago this month, the song "Harper Valley P.T.A." made singer Jeannie C. Riley the first woman to hit the top spot on both the pop and country charts. More recently, the song made Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time."

Written by renowned country artist Tom T. Hall, "Harper Valley P.T.A." is a clapback to slut-shaming. The shaming comes in the form of a snarky letter from the PTA to a single mom:

"Well the note said, 'Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high / It's reported you've been drinking / And running 'round with men and goin' wild / And we don't believe you oughta be a-bringin' up your little girl this way' / And it was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A.," Riley sings.

The PTA's holier-than-thou members just couldn't hold back their judgments. Even more insulting to this mom, the letter was delivered by her teenage daughter. But the organization messed with the wrong mom. As the song tells it, Mrs. Johnson shows up at a PTA meeting wearing one of her trademark miniskirts and calls out the hypocrisy, one member at a time.

"Well there's Bobby Taylor sittin' there / And seven times he's asked me for a date / And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lotta ice whenever he's away / And Mr. Baker can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?" the song recounts.

In interviews, Hall has said "Harper Valley P.T.A." is based on a true story from his childhood in Olive Hill, Ky. He says that single mom was "a free spirit" who challenged the small town's social conventions. She too showed up at a PTA meeting and berated the members for their "indiscretions" and hypocrisy. As a boy of 9 or 10, Hall was impressed.

"I never thought anyone would say, 'Hey, I'm doing OK. Leave me alone.' And I didn't write the song until 20 years later," Hall told a TV interviewer in 1984.

When "Harper Valley P.T.A." was released, women were fighting for rights that, today, some may take for granted. In 1968, there were no federal laws prohibiting employers from firing a woman if she was pregnant. Most women needed their husbands to co-sign to get a credit card. Between the Vietnam War and the civil rights and women's liberation movements, there was a tremendous amount of anger in the air. "Harper Valley P.T.A." was a catchy, country-pop song that also tapped into the anger many women felt about the double standards they faced.

"Women were still judged very harshly for drinking or smoking or open sexuality," Mary Bufwack, co-author of Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, says. "The consciousness of 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' already understood that you can't put people down for what they look like."

But in 1968, the music business was as sexist as any other. The record label wanted to brand Riley as if she were the woman in the song. They didn't want her mentioning her husband in interviews and they only wanted to see her perform in a miniskirt.

"Right off, I could see that I was being considered an image, not a person," Riley says. "A sassy sexpot instead of a singer. That just wasn't me."

While miniskirts were popular among young women, including fans of country music, not everyone was on board with them. Dressing in such a "scandalous" manner wasn't acceptable in more conservative venues like the Grand Ole Opry — which was a problem for Riley, whose dream was to one day perform on Nashville's legendary stage. However, it certainly didn't bar the singer from success.

"Harper Valley P.T.A.," Riley's first record and an instant hit, changed her life. She went from being a secretary to touring the country and performing on TV with Johnny Cash and her idol, Loretta Lynn. She won a Grammy in 1969 for the song. She bought a house for herself and her first husband, expensive perfumes and a new Cadillac. In 1972, Riley became a born-again Christian and started recording gospel songs.

"I don't have glamour to cling to," Riley says. "I don't have the excitement of being on top of the heap or possessions, but I've got peace of mind and joy in my spirit like I've never had before."

As for the PTA, Riley has gotten some angry letters from people accusing her of trying to hurt the association, but she wasn't. She was a member herself.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fifty years ago, Americans first heard about the miniskirt-wearing mom who drew the scorn of a small town.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

JEANNIE C RILEY: (Singing) I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife.

CORNISH: "Harper Valley P.T.A." made singer Jeannie C. Riley the first woman to hit No. 1 on both the pop and country charts. More recently, the song made Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time. As part of our series 1968: How We Got Here, NPR's Elizabeth Blair says the message still resonates.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "Harper Valley P.T.A." is like a clapback to slut-shaming. The shaming comes in the form of a snarky letter from the PTA to a single mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) Well, the note said, Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high. It's reported you've been drinking and running around with men and going wild.

BLAIR: Going wild, men, drinking, short skirts - the PTA just cannot hold back its judgments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) And we don't believe you ought to be bringing up your little girl this way.

BLAIR: The PTA messed with the wrong mom. She shows up at a PTA meeting in her miniskirt and calls out their hypocrisy one by one, like the married man who's been hitting on her, the woman whose breath smells of gin, and where did Mr. Baker's secretary go?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) And, Mr. Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?

MARGARET EBY: It's the kind of song that when you turn it on, everybody wants to turn it up, and people who haven't heard it before kind of can't believe that it came out 50 years ago.

BLAIR: Margaret Eby is a writer from Birmingham, Ala., who now lives in New York. She used to play "Harper Valley P.T.A." on her college radio show just a decade ago. She loves how the character in the song socks it to the PTA.

EBY: When it happened, it's kind of a spectacular event. It's just a real fun morsel of seeing people get their comeuppance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) And then you had the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I'm not fit. Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites.

BLAIR: In 1968, when "Harper Valley P.T.A." was released, there were no federal laws against firing a woman if she was pregnant. A woman needed her husband to co-sign to get a credit card. Tom T. Hall, who wrote the song, said it's based on a true story from his childhood in Kentucky. He says that single mom showed up at a PTA meeting and berated the members for their indiscretions and hypocrisy. Hall was impressed as he said in this 1984 TV interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM T HALL: I never thought anybody would stand up and say, hey, I'm doing OK. Leave me alone. And I was just knocked out, and I didn't write the song about 20 years later or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) No, I wouldn't put you on because it really did. It happened just this way.

She felt discriminated against, and it made her somewhat rebellious.

BLAIR: Jeannie C. Riley says "Harper Valley P.T.A." changed her life. It was her first record and an instant hit. She went from being a secretary to touring the country and performing on TV with Johnny Cash and her idol, Loretta Lynn. She won a Grammy. She bought a house for her and her first husband, expensive perfumes and a new Cadillac.

RILEY: I couldn't go around in our old '57 Chevy after "Harper Valley."

BLAIR: But remember; this was 1968, and the music business was as sexist as any other. The record label wanted to brand her as if she were the woman in the song. Riley says they didn't want her mentioning her husband in interviews, and they only wanted to see her in a miniskirt.

RILEY: Right off, I could see that I was being considered an image, not a person, a sassy sexpot instead of a singer.

BLAIR: Riley says that just wasn't her. She became a born-again Christian and started recording gospel songs.

RILEY: I don't have glamour to cling to. I don't have the excitement of being on top of the heap or possessions. But I've got peace of mind and joy in my spirit like I've never had before.

BLAIR: As for the PTA, Jeannie C. Riley says she got some angry letters from people accusing her of trying to hurt the Parent Teacher Association. She says she wasn't. She was a member herself. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.")

RILEY: (Singing) The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA. The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.