If you look up Apple Music, “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley shows up on a playlist entitled “Essential Feminism Songs.” It’s listed alongside other great girl power standards as “Express Yourself” by Madonna, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by the Eurythmics… and “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. Understandable, since it marks a great musical milestone for a female artist. Riley was the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the US Hot Country Singles with the same song in 1968. The song also won Riley a Grammy. It’s been covered by Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Martina McBride, and Billy Ray Cyrus of all people.
I rather hate the song.
Not the whole context of a woman standing up for herself. But… well, what set her off really? The secretary of the Harper Valley PTA sends her a note saying that her miniskirt is inappropriate wear for dropping off her daughter at school. YES, the secretary may have overstepped her bounds by implying that the protagonist, Mrs. Johnson, was a slut. That was uncalled for. But I imagine that the secretary must have sent Mrs. Johnson several notes to no avail, and was getting so fed up that by the time this letter went through she was resorting to some nasty name-calling.
Do you know what was uncalled for? Mrs. Johnson’s retaliation. She goes to the PTA meeting, and she decides to air out everyone’s dirty laundry in that room… calling everyone a hypocrite when they’re all having affairs and drinking booze behind everyone’s backs. I get that… but seriously your only beef is with the secretary. Why are you you lashing out at everyone in the room for?
The song is peppered with slang that shows that Mrs. Johnson is “cool” and “with it”. She refers to “Peyton Place”, a TV show about a small town scandal, and her daughter is all “my momma socked it” to the PTA, which was some modern slang. Look… there’s nothing less cool than a mom of a teenage daughter being referred to in the slang of the day.
Anyway, Mrs. Johnson is portrayed as a hero for defending to wear her right to wear a miniskirt while dropping off her daughter at school. She shames everyone around her whether they criticized her or not. You know what that sounds like? A Facebook argument that I never want to be involved in ever.
Do you know who also felt that way?
Singer Jeannie C. Riley herself.
In the 1970’s, she became a Born-again Christian, and the lyrics of the song just didn’t seem to set right with her after. When she sang it, she was probably the young woman who thought fighting for the right to wear a miniskirt was sticking it to the man. Now she’s an older woman, and finding the entire outburst embarrassing.
In fact, she released a sequel song in 1984 called “Return to Harper Valley”. There, Mrs. Johnson wears a full length dress. She realizes that times have changed. She’s actually made peace with the people she called out in that PTA meeting.Her daughter now has two kids going to school, and now they’re surrounded by drug users. IN fear, she wants to get her gun from home, but rather she prays and hopes the PTA will sort things out.
“Return to Harper Valley” wasn’t a hit, because teen rebellion sells way more songs than one about regrets over the consequences.