How Jeannie C. Riley's 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' Socked It To Authority
By | December 31, 2017
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?
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.