×

How Jeannie C. Riley's 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' Socked It To Authority

Music | January 2, 2018

Left: Sleeve for the Japanese single of Jeannie C. Riley's 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' (1969). Right: Barbara Eden as Stella Johnson in the 1978 film 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' Sources: discogs.com; Reddit

In August 1968, country singer Jeannie C. Riley scored a number-one hit with "Harper Valley P.T.A.," a song on an unlikely subject: the parent-teacher association in a small town. The song tells a story of "Mrs. Johnson," a single mother being harassed by a prudish and hypocritical P.T.A., and her decision to give her tormentors a taste of their own medicine. The second half of the song is the mother's scathing critique of the P.T.A. members, a beatdown the daughter (who is the narrator) recalls as "the day my momma socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A."

The song was a sensation, and earned Jeannie C. Riley her own variety show, Harper Valley U.S.A. -- and the song's story was later the basis of a movie and a network TV sitcom.

Was The Song A Secret Counterculture Anthem?

August 1969: Singer Jeannie C. Riley seated between guitars and cymbals in a musical instrument store in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Written by Tom T. Hall, "Harper Valley P.T.A." might seem like no more than a tale of small-town country feuding, but there's more to it. In 1968, young people -- even those who listened to country music -- were questioning the authority of the older generation. Their parents looked down at them for how they dressed, for their more liberal views on sexuality, for their indulgence and rebelliousness. In a way, the P.T.A.'s criticism of the song's heroine, single mom Stella Johnson, is a lot like the criticism being directed at young people by their parents, teachers, and politicians.

And like many young people in 1968, Stella Johnson didn't feel like taking grief from people who weren't so squeaky-clean themselves. "Harper Valley P.T.A." wasn't obviously about the generation gap, but listeners could identify with Stella. The song hit #1 on the Billboard country chart as well as the Hot 100 pop chart (which wouldn't happen again until 1981, when Dolly Parton did it with "9 to 5").

Another cultural element that contributed to the song's massive success, and one we tend to forget today, was the closing line: "The day my momma socked it to the Haper Valley P.T.A." The choice of words was a last minute tweak by the producer (and a departure from Hall's lyrics), in the hope identifying with the hottest show on TV, Laugh-In. It worked. Riley might have been a country singer, but she wore go-go boots and miniskirts, and she spoke the hip language of the mainstream.

Harper Valley On The Big Screen

In 1978, a film by the same name was released. The film starred Barbara Eden (of I Dream Of Jeannie fame), Nanette Fabray, Ronny Cox, Louis Nye and Susan Swift. The release targeted drive-in-theaters; probably because of the racy content. Although the movie was a comedy, the song had a ring of truth to it. Despite that, it had been considered scandalous. Stella Johnson, a widow living with her junior-high aged daughter in Harper Valley, Ohio, was considered promiscuous and improper by her small-minded neighbors.

Barbara Eden Didn't Have Time For That

One day, Stella’s teenaged daughter brought home a letter from the P.T.A., addressing what the organization considered to be indiscretions on the part of her mother. The letter alleged that Stella was an immoral and irresponsible parent. The letter threatened that if Stella didn’t change her ways that her daughter would be expelled from school.

What Happened At The P.T.A. Meeting

Armed with personal knowledge of the secret indiscretions of some of the P.T.A. and other community members, Stella stormed into the next P.T.A. meeting, unannounced. She proceeded to address the committee. Much to their chagrin, Stella proceeded to expose the secrets that some of the most respected members of the town had been hiding. In the end, the humbled recipients of Stella’s rant had reluctantly taken their places as fallible human beings.

Harper Valley P.T.A. came to the small screen in 1981, again starring Barbara Eden as Stella. The show lasted 30 episodes. Below are the lyrics to this eye-opening song in case you have forgotten:


I wanna tell you all a story 'bout a Harper Valley widowed wife,

Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High,

Well her daughter came home one afternoon and didn't even stop to play,

And she said, "Mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA”.


Well the note said, "Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high

It's reported you've been drinkin' and runnin' 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 PTA.


Well it happened that the PTA was gonna meet that very afternoon

And they were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her mini-skirt into the room

And as she walked up to the blackboard, I still recall the words she had to say

She said I'd like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley PTA.


Well, there's Bobby Taylor sittin' there and seven times he's asked me for a date

And Mrs. Taylor 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?

And shouldn't widow Jones be told to keep her window shades a pulled completely down?

Socking It To 'Em

Well Mr. Harper couldn't be here ‘cause he stayed too long at Kelly's Bar again

And if you smell Shirley Thompson's breath you'll find she's had a little nip of gin

And then you have 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.


No, I wouldn't put you on because it really did happen just this way

The day my momma socked it to, the Harper Valley PTA

The day my momma socked it to, the Harper Valley PTA

Tags: Harper Valley PTA | Jeannie Riley | Music In The 1960s | Peaceful Protests | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The 1960s

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.