Every Day Is a Great Day to Revisit the Song 'Harper Valley P.T.A.'

In Depth

For your information: It’s the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the best song ever written about telling a bunch of interfering, judgemental hypocrites to eat shit.

I’m speaking, of course, about “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the smash 1968 hit country song that crossed over onto the pop charts and went to the top there, too. It’s currently the subject of a throwback piece at NPR. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it’s about a mom who gets a letter from the local P.T.A. (delivered via her teen daughter), castigating her for her short skirts and wild ways; she attends their next meeting and goes nuclear, trotting out every piece of embarrassing gossip in their small town and concluding that “this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.”

In fact the song was written by a man, songwriter Tom T. Hall:

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.

Riley remained a major country music star for several years, racking up several hits, but she has said since that to her frustration, her record label basically wanted to make her into the character from the song; “Right off, I could see that I was being considered an image, not a person,” she said. “A sassy sexpot instead of a singer. That just wasn’t me.” She ultimately got born again and switched to recording gospel.

But the song holds up—play it for every teenaged girl frustrated at her school’s bullshit dress code. And in the meantime, read the NPR piece here.

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