25: Harper Valley PTA

25: Harper Valley PTA

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Harper Valley PTA

Story by Tom T. Hall

Song written by Tom T. Hall

Recorded by Jeannie C. Riley

When I was a small boy, in the town where I grew up, there was a lady who used to have parties on Saturday nights. Obviously, I changed her name in the song. She would have people over and they would have drinks and talk and listen to records. It wasn’t a crack house or anything wild like that. They were all pretty respectable people, and she had a daughter. This is all in the song.

I was on my way from Nashville to Franklin, Tennessee, where I lived, which is about 15 miles from Nashville. I saw a sign that said, “Harpeth Valley Utility District.” I changed the “Harpeth” to “Harper” because I thought it would be a good name to use in the song.

I had this song around for a while, but I hadn’t finished it. I played what I had for my publisher and he said, “You’ve got to get off this story-song kick and start writing some regular songs.” At the time, the thing in Nashville was what I called “little darling” songs — love songs. I don’t say that to denigrate them, because there were some great songs written in that form, but I was not very good at it. I had studied American literature and journalism, so my mind was more bent toward storytelling. I got by for a few years doing that in Nashville. The kind of songs that I liked to write were songs like “Harper Valley PTA.” I had been told to write about what I knew and these were people and places that I knew, so I stuck with that. I still write that way. My wife Dixie and I are still in the business of writing songs for bluegrass and acoustic singers and bands. We have a studio at the house with no drums or piano or anything; it’s all geared toward acoustic music.

I put that song down on acoustic guitar, and gave it to someone who was thinking of recording it. He took it home and then said, “I don’t think I can record that. I played it for my kids and they said nothing like this would ever happen in a school, and no kind of characters like that lived in our neighborhood.”

One day a DJ called me and said, “Do you have any songs for girls to sing?” His wife, whose name was Alice Joy, was a singer and she was looking for a new song. So I said, “Yes, I’ve got a new song called ‘Harper Valley PTA’ that hasn’t been cut yet.” So she recorded it. I don’t remember what happened after that, but Shelby Singleton of Plantation Records heard the song. He wanted this part-time secretary in Nashville named Jeanie C. Riley to record it.

In those days, they would make up acetates and send them out to all the prominent disc jockeys. They recorded it on a Friday night, and it was a hit record by about Tuesday night. “Harper Valley PTA” was the largest selling single of the time. The single sold about seven million copies even before the album came out. In those days, 100,000 records was a big hit, so you can imagine what a sensation it was. It was #1 on several charts: easy listening, R&B, country, and rock and roll. Then later they made a movie about it, and then a TV series. So from the time of its inception, it just snowballed.

Harper Valley PTA

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 PTA”

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 PTA

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

They were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her miniskirt 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

Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of 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 all pulled completely down?

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

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, it happened just this way

The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA

The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA

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