September 10, 2008
Written by Tom T. Hall
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” written by Tom T. Hall, is the ultimate in story songs. A career-changing hit single for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it introduced the world to a small-town environment filled with gossip and a woman not afraid to stand up to her know-it-all critics.
This absorbing story was written by Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall. In an interview, Hall states that his inspiration for the song was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, and that he built the song around the school name. Jeannie C. Riley, who served as songwriter Jerry Chesnut’s secretary, heard the song and recorded it herself with the help of producer Shelby Singleton.
Although the account is purely fictional, it brims with true-to-life spectacle. The song tells the story of a junior high student who is sent home with a note to her single mother from the Parent Teacher Association of the school. The group of small-town parents calls out the mother for her shameful behavior (among these transgressions: dating numerous men and wearing mini-skirts), but instead of accepting the criticism, she decides to attend their next meeting. At the meeting, she cites misconduct of several of the individual members, including the scandalous affairs and drinking problems that pale in comparison with her indiscretions. She concludes, “This is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.” And as the song fades, Riley, in the character of the teenage daughter, says she will always remember the day her “Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.”
The classic anthem sold over six million copies as a single, and became a No. 1 pop and country smash, making Riley the first woman ever to top both singles charts with the same song. The song earned Riley a Grammy for Best Female Country & Western Vocal Performance, and the Country Music Association named it Single of the Year, both awards coming in 1968. The song was later the inspiration for a 1978 motion picture and a 1981 television series, both starring Barbara Eden, playing the heroine of the song.
“Harper Valley P.T.A” turned out to be the only major pop success for Riley, although she experienced scattered hits on the country charts throughout the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, Riley began recording gospel music and eventually gained acclaim as a popular contemporary Christian artist. Tom T. Tall counted “Harper Valley P.T.A.” as one of his seven No. 1 country singles, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.