The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

2 September 2006

Just a little Peyton Place

Dawn Eden is showing a YouTube of Jeannie C. Riley, and along with it come some questions about "Harper Valley P.T.A.", to this effect:

I wonder — looking past Riley's ultra-glam gold lamé boots and silver lamé dress [in the video clip] — is the message of this song as positive as it purports to be? Is it just about putting the lie to self-righteousness and calling hypocrisy by its proper name? Or is it really just a sad tale of a fatherless teenage girl whose mother drinks, runs around, and then tries to justify herself by talking trash about her judgmental neighbors?

CD cover artMyself, I'm inclined to cut Mrs. Johnson some slack, inasmuch as her single-mom status was visited upon her in the worst way. The first line of the song, after all, is "I want to tell you all a story 'bout a Harper Valley widowed wife," which doesn't necessarily mean that she wasn't a Wild Child before she was wed, but does confer upon her a smidgen of, you should pardon the expression, moral authority that would not devolve upon, say, "The Girl Most Likely," the title of Riley's second hit single. (And, come to think of it, the narrator of "Most Likely" is accused of all manner of depravity, being as how she's a poor girl and all.)

But the key, I think, is printed on the record label between the title and the artist. "Harper Valley P.T.A." was written by Tom T. Hall, and if anyone in Nashville exemplifies elliptical, nowhere-near-in-your-face narratives, it's Tom T. Hall: he's more interested in letting the details accumulate than in beating you over the head with a Message. (Exhibit A: "Homecoming".) If the song seems to take the side of the widow Johnson, it's because — and Hall was astute enough to keep it a secret until the very last verse — it's told from the point of view of the daughter, who is not what you'd call an unbiased observer. And by saving that bombshell for the very end, Tom T. Hall forces you to look back at both sides of the matter: yes, Harper Valley may be overrun with hypocrites, but nowhere does he say that they're misjudging Mrs. J.

So Dawn's seeing it straight: both of those premises are there, though many of us, having been told since, oh, the 1960s or thereabouts, that hypocrisy is the greatest of all sins, see only the one. (Photo snagged from Collectables Records.)

Posted at 10:48 AM to Almost Yogurt , Tongue and Groove


I always thought of Tom T. as more of a storyteller than a songwriter. And I mean that as a compliment. Even his own tale is worthy of a classic country music-styled piece of American literature.

"Tom T. Hall came to Nashville with $46 and a guitar."

I mean, really? I could write a whole novel around that one sentence alone.

Posted by: Jennifer at 11:59 AM on 2 September 2006

Persoannly, I enjoyed "Who's gonna feed them Hogs?" and "The Little Lady Preacher". Other fine examples of 'wait till the end' type song writing..

Posted by: Dwayne "the canoe guy" at 3:06 PM on 2 September 2006

Lookie here -- HVPTA started it in that most cowardly of ways, a note sent home from school with her kid. Mrs. Johnson brought the pain directly. And rightly so, pot/kettle & heat/kitchen aside.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at 9:01 PM on 2 September 2006

No Tom T Hall song will ever compare, in depth or beauty, to "Sneaky Snake".

Posted by: Matthew at 10:03 PM on 4 September 2006