- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
In 1967, country artist Margie Singleton recorded a Top 40 country hit with her cover version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” A year later, Singleton asked songwriter Tom T. Hall, who had a knack for narrative and a keen eye for detail, to write her a similar tune.
Hall, who had once been a DJ in Salem, Virginia, used to spend his free time writing poetry and strumming his $46 guitar. Later, after creating minor country hits for Jimmy Newman and Dave Dudley, he relocated to “Music City”— Nashville, Tennessee.
Hall honored Singleton’s request, basing his “Harper Valley PTA” melody on “Ode to Billie Joe” and his lyrics on gossip that he had once overheard about a young widow while growing up in Olive Hill, Kentucky.
He later recounted, “I was fascinated by [the widow’s] 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.”
His inspiration for the song’s title came about one afternoon when he noted the name Harpeth Valley Elementary School as he drove through the Nashville suburb of Bellevue.
Hall’s slice-of-life song involves a raucous confrontation between a young widow and the local powers that be, who object to her mode of dress, her familiarity with the local men, and her social drinking.
In the story, a junior-high girl brings her mother a note from the local PTA board that berates the lady for her behavior and the bad example she is setting for her daughter.
The offended mother — Mrs. Johnson — storms into the afternoon PTA meeting, boldly dressed in a miniskirt, and exposes various instances of board-member indiscretion and misbehavior, with her final salvo being.
This is just a little Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.
Jeannie C. Riley was a striking 22-year-old from Stamford, Texas, who in 1966 had moved to Nashville with her husband and infant daughter. Riley worked as a $41-a-week secretary for a music publisher while recording demos (demonstration records) part time.
One day Riley cut a demo — in just one take — of Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA” for newly formed Plantation Records. Upon learning that Margie Singleton had already recorded Hall’s as-yet-unreleased ditty, the Plantation honchos rushed Riley’s version onto the market in order to beat the competition.
It turned out to be a wise business move. Riley’s mini soap opera caught fire overnight and eventually topped both the country and the pop charts, the first such feat for any female country recording artist.
Her song later inspired a 1978 film and, in 1981, a spinoff TV series, both starring Barbara (I Dream of Jeannie) Eden playing put-upon Mrs. Johnson, who now had a first name: Stella.
Riley recorded five more Top 10 country hits for Plantation Records but would never again enjoy another pop success, although her now-iconic single proved popular enough to ensure her a place of honor in 1960s music history.
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at email@example.com.