Now, yesterday, what did we learn?
Kenny Rogers has made some scary choices when it comes to his face;
Not to fall in love with someone that the entire county irrationally hates for his cowardice, lest you be assaulted to teach your love-object a lesson;
Fisticuffs solve all problems, and there is no need to involve the law in matters of rape.
Today, my other irrational childhood country music love, which was also inappropriate for a child to listen to.
Inappropriate Song #2: Harper Valley P.T.A. by Jeannie C. Riley
(Apparently this was recorded by other artists and also made into a movie and a TV show starring the genie from I Dream of Jeannie. I never saw or heard any of these things so am going to pretend they don’t exist, like snuff porn and signs that say “Don’t feed the ducks” when I show up with a bag of bread crumbs and an intense desire to feed the ducks. Seriously, I’m like the duck whisperer.)
Premise: A teenage girl looks back on the time her mother stood up to the priggish Parent-Teacher Association.
The song starts by introducing the main character: Mrs. Johnson, a widow with a daughter who attends junior high. We know immediately that the woman isn’t a whore. She’s a widow, not a divorcée. She earned her single status honorably: her husband passed away. (Whether or not she murdered him is not discussed in the song; we’ll have to assume she didn’t.)
One day, the unnamed daughter brings home a note from the P.T.A for her mother. Now, I don’t think my school had a P.T.A., or if it did it was such a shadowy organization it was never spoken of, so I was always a little confused about this. Was this like a school board? What authority did this governing body have? They could just give children notes to take home to their mothers? This was very confusing.
“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.’
And it was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Wow. OK. So not only can this secretive governing group force children to be their messengers, they can pass judgment on parenting skills? Now, this song was popular in 1968, when hippies and short skirts and women’s lib and such were in full force, so I assume Mrs. Johnson was a liberated woman of some kind, and that the accusations weren’t completely unfounded. But seriously, what kind of veiled threat is this? Are they going to call CPS? Because listen, read between the lines, here. They are calling Mrs. Johnson a whore. A short-skirt-wearing drunken whore who, by extension, is passing these traits along to her daughter.
Oh, no, Mrs. Johnson is NOT HAVING THIS.
“Well, it happened that the P.T.A. was gonna meet that very afternoon
They were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her mini-skirt 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 P.T.A.’”
Oooh! What will happen, what will happen! Mrs. Johnson WORE HER MINI-SKIRT to a meeting of the P.T.A., y’all. This is some serious shit going down right here. Can you imagine the raised eyebrows of propriety that are going on all over that conference room?
Now comes the part of the song where I was, and remain, somewhat befuddled. Mrs. Johnson goes around the room and j’accuses each and every person in the association, letting them know that they are, in fact, living in glass houses, so put down the frigging rocks, already. But some of her accusations are a little odd.
“Well, there’s Bobby Taylor sittin’ there and seven times he’s asked me for a date”
This seems somewhat ok, if not a little desperate – seven times? Seven? Really? Whoa, Bobby Taylor, I’d think after like three times you might think, she’s not interested, but you really went for it, seven! Good show, my friend! – until you get to the next line…
“And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he’s away”
Ha! He’s MARRIED! BURN! But what exactly does this line mean? I still don’t know, to this day. My theories:
1. Mrs. Taylor drinks a lot. But there are two other people coming up that she accuses of being tipplers, so if that’s the case, it doesn’t carry a lot of weight.
2. It’s a small town. Is there an ice man? Is she having an affair?
3. Is she murdering people, therefore “icing” them? Or “putting them on ice?”
Also, Jeannie C. Riley has a somewhat thick country accent, so when she sings “ice” it sounds like “eyes” so throughout my childhood, I thought she was singing “sure seems to use a lot of eyes” and thought she was a peeping Tom.
“And Mr. Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?”
Mr. Baker knocked up his secretary! Or killed her.
“And shouldn’t Widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?”
Way to ruin it for the horny teens of Harper Valley, Mrs. Johnson. Unless Widow Jones is old and/or ill-kempt. Then, ew. And thanks, Mrs. Johnson.
“Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again”
The town namesake is a drunk!
“And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin”
So is Shirley Thompson! I think the song would have more punch if Shirley Thompson was embezzling, or something, though. Two alcohol references back-to-back isn’t really well-written. You need to get Sondheim in here to punch this shit up.
Then Mrs. Johnson finishes them off with this:
“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.”
Has anyone read Peyton Place? I haven’t. I’m willing to bet what was shocking back then isn’t a big deal now. I bet what shocked everyone was French kissing. Or, there was sex, but it wasn’t even spelled out as graphically as any of the current Harlequin romances on the shelves nowadays. Whoo, would the Harper Valley P.T.A. have a field day with today’s mores and values!
We find out at the end of the song that it’s all true, because the unnamed teenage daughter was the narrator throughout, and she wouldn’t lie to us about the time her Momma “socked it” to the Harper Valley P.T.A. Hee hee. I love old-timey slang. Sock it to me, baby. Far out. Dy-no-mite.
Apparently, Jeannie C. Riley became a born-again Christian at some point in her life and now refuses to sing this song. That makes me sad. Surely there’s a compromise that can be made. I’d like to hear the born-again version of this:
The note said, Mrs. Johnson, the flames of hellfire wait for you,
It’s reported you’re the Whore of Babylon, and don’t observe the Sabbath;
And we believe there’s a possibility you might need to go on trial for witchcraft.
And it was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A. (And notarized by a preacher.)
Again, I love this song. Love it. I sing along to the top of my lungs to this puppy. I like to imagine loud, brassy Mrs. Johnson in her mini-skirt standing in front of the conference room full of fusty old relics pulling their dirty laundry out into the open. But it wasn’t really appropriate for a kid. It was another one I’d act out with my stuffed animals. The Mr. Harper stuffed animal fell off his barstool; the Bobby Taylor stuffed animal sleazed around hitting on everyone that moved; the Mrs. Taylor stuffed animal…stood there with ice. I don’t know. I don’t know why she wanted all that ice. WHY DID SHE WANT ALL THAT ICE? This question has haunted me for over thirty years. Some people ponder the meaning of life, or their place in the world, or what legacy they will leave behind for future generations; in my downtime, I mull over why, exactly, in a 43-year-old song, Mrs. Taylor needed scads of ice (or, maybe, “eyes”) when her husband wasn’t home.