Meaning Behind “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley

The story behind Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” seems somewhat far-fetched, but the song’s meaning is so relatable at the same time. Listeners empathize with the fictional widow Mrs. Johnson as she’s treated like a social pariah by the uppity Harper Valley P.T.A. We all root for the single mother as she takes them down a peg. Her brazenness has become so much of a country music legend that it could only be born from fact.

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The Origins

While the song does tell of the goings-on of a fictional Parent-Teacher Association, the words do harbor some truths.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by acclaimed country songwriter Tom T. Hall in 1967. The story goes he had been asked to pen a song similar to that of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” which had been dubbed a smash hit that same year.

He took up the challenge, drawing inspiration from his own life just as Gentry had for her classic song.

“The story is a true story,” the songwriter once told The Boot. “I didn’t make the story up. I chose the story to make a statement but I changed the names to protect the innocent.”

He then recalled his childhood. “There were 10 kids in our family,” he continued. “We’d get up in the morning and my mother and father would get bored with us running around and we’d go terrorize the neighbors up and down this little road we lived on. After we had done our chores, of course.”

He began to wonder downtown where he took in local chit-chat about one townswoman in particular, the person who would later become the leading lady of Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

“I was about nine years old,” he explained, “and heard the story and got to know this lady. I was fascinated by her grit. To see this very insignificant, socially disenfranchised lady–a single mother–who was willing to march down to the local aristocracy and read them the riot act so to speak, was fascinating.”

He got the name of the school much later. Harper Valley Junior High came to him after driving past Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee. He took note of the name, and from there, let the character’s story be told.

The Lyrics

The song opens by introducing a Harper Valley widowed wife, Mrs. Johnson, who has a teen daughter attending the local Junior High. One day, the girl comes home with a note from the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, or P.T.A., who are not pleased with Mrs. Johnson’s lifestyle.

Against a simple twanging arrangement Riley’s vehement vocals address the situation.

I want to 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
She said, “Mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Well, the note said, “Mrs. Johnson, you’re wearing your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinking and a-runnin’ ’round with men and going wild
And we don’t believe you ought to be bringing up your little girl this way”
It was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A.

The “concerned” P.T.A. critique the single mother’s appearance and how she lives her life with all the drinking and a-runnin’ ’round with men and going wild. Not too pleased with the letter, Mrs. Johnson heads down to school and crashes the P.T.A. meeting that afternoon to tell the members just exactly what she thinks of them flinging judgments at her.

Well, it happened that the P.T.A. was gonna meet that very afternoon
They were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her mini-skirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard, I can still recall the words she had to say
She said, “I’d like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley P.T.A.”

She then lets them have it. There’s Bobby Taylor sittin’ there and seven times he’s asked me for a date, she says. And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he’s away. She calls out Mr. Baker, asking, Can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town? She points the finger at Mr. Harper, as well, as she dishes on him and Shirley Thompson’s tendencies to go hard in the paint. She concludes with the kicker:

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
.

The song closes from the daughter’s perspective. No, I wouldn’t put you on because it really did, it happened just this way, the biting tune concludes, The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.

(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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