Happy Birthday Jeannie C. Riley: “Harper Valley PTA” Power Rankings

October 19, 1945 saw Jeannie C. Riley, though at birth she was Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson. She was born in the one horse town of Anson, Texas, which is out in the middle of nowhere and has 2,300 people in it today. She is best known for singing the Tom T. Hall-penned classic “Harper Valley PTA,” which discusses the hypocrisy and Karen-esque nature of a school’s PTA, and has become something of a pop-country staple song. It was released in 1968, and at various times was the number one song on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles (not to be confused with farmersonly.com) and the Billboard Hot 100. Riley was the first woman to top both lists and it wouldn’t be done again until Dolly Parton did it in 1980 with “9 to 5.”

In case you’re not familiar with “Harper Valley PTA,” here’s a video of Jeannie C. Riley singing it, and the lyrics will be posted below.

I wanna 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
And she said, “mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA

“Well, the note said, “Mrs. Johnson
You’re wearin’ your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinking
And a-running ’round with men and goin’ wild
And we don’t believe you oughta be a-bringin’ up
Your little girl this way”
And it was signed by the Secretary
Harper Valley PTA

Well, it happened that the PTA was gonna meet
That very afternoon
And they were sure surprised
When Mrs. Johnson wore her miniskirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard
I can 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
And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lotta 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
And then you have the nerve to tell me
You think that as the 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

Now that you’re familiar with the lyrics, let’s power rank the people in it.

The Power Rankings

Before we get into the rankings, we have to figure out what we’re ranking here. We’re not including the children of the song, including the narrator, because they are, essentially, non-characters in this little dramady. That leaves the adults, including the narrator’s mom, Mrs. Johnson. The one thing in common is that, apparently, they are people who on some level are not being good role models to their kids. So, how about we rank them from least to most likely to be a decent role model. With that in mind, here we go!

8. Mr. Baker
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We don’t know much about Mr. Baker, but what we do know is damning. His secretary had to leave town, and while there are many possible reasons the secretary left town, none of them is flattering to Mr. Baker. Did Mr. Baker get caught having an inappropriate relationship with his secretary? Is Mr. Baker’s place of business similar to Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price from Mad Men, where every married man has a secretary side piece? Did Mr. Baker get his secretary pregnant like [SPOILERS] Pete Campbell got Peggy Olson pregnant in Mad Men? Am I going to make a lot of comparisons to Mad Men in this post? The only one I can answer is the last question, and the answer is yes. But Mr. Baker definitely had an inappropriate relationship with his secretary in some capacity. In fact, I believe we can safely assume that Mr. Baker either cheated on Mrs. Baker (if she exists) with his secretary, or that he may have even gone so far as to forced himself on his secretary. Either one makes Mr. Baker a complete dirtbag. We definitely don’t want Mr. Baker being a role model for impressionable students.

7. Bobby Taylor

Bobby Taylor, who presumably is married to Mrs. Taylor (below) is the next contemptable person on this list for asking Mrs. Johnson out on a date seven times. Seven times! Dude…take the hint. That situation is unacceptable always, but Bobby Taylor would be absolutely #canceled in today’s climate, and with good reason. Interestingly, we don’t know if Bobby Taylor has ever successfully cheated on Mrs. Taylor (again, assuming they’re married). But assuming Bobby is married to Mrs. Taylor, even asking another woman out is a pure ballbag of a move on his part, and really but for the insinuation that Mr. Baker actually did have something going on with his secretary, Bobby Taylor might have been the worst person on the list.

6. Mrs. Taylor

As bad as Bobby Taylor is, his wife (and we’re going to assume that’s what she is) is also pretty bad. The song notes that every time Bobby is away, Mrs. Taylor uses a lot of ice. There is no explanation for exactly what that means, but we can assume that either Mrs. Taylor is a raging alcoholic who goes on benders when Bobby is away, or that she’s using ice because she has a lot of male visitors who like ice in their drinks when Bobby is away. If she’s going on benders, that makes her a bad person because she’s the only parent around and is being derelict in her duties as a mother to get hammered. Or maybe she’s like Joan in Mad Men in that she’s married but is also kind of a super badass and is just acting like the men around her? If she’s cheating on Bobby, it might be Bobby’s comeuppance but it still means she’s neglecting her kid to have dalliance(s) with men who prefer their drinks on ice. Frankly it reminds me of that old Neil Diamond song. “Love on the rocks, ain’t no surprise.” Get it? It’s like a pun with “on the rocks” meaning a precarious situation and ice cubes in drinks? Yeah? No? Eh, I tried.

5. Secretary, Harper Valley PTA.

The person who wrote the note to Mrs. Johnson is right here solely because of the elite level of pretentiousness needed to add “Secretary, Harper Valley PTA” under their signature. I’m a lawyer, so I see a lot of really dickish signatures, and I can tell you the people with more stuff in their signature are generally people you don’t want passing their personalities onto the youth of America. It’s a shame this person isn’t named. Oh, well.

4. Mrs. Johnson

I know, this might be shocking to some that the hero of the song isn’t the least contemptable person on the list, and I completely agree with you that the letter Mrs. Johnson got was super passive aggressive and unnecessary, but hear me out. Mrs. Johnson is described as “widowed,” meaning her husband died. We don’t know how old the narrator was when her dad died, but we do know that she apparently no longer has a had. We also know that Mrs. Johnson has been out drinking and acting wild with men about town. This says to me that Mrs. Johnson is overwhelmed with her role as a single mother and is processing the grief for her husband and her stress over her parental duties by mentally checking out, and while I very much sympathize with her, that doesn’t make her immune to criticism. She should spend more time with her kid, because when Mrs. Johnson lost her husband, the narrator lost a father, and adults should help their children process that kind of grief instead of closing down bars and scrolling through 1960s Bumble, which was probably just a signpost on a telephone pole that said “call for a swell evening” or something.

3. Mr. Harper
Don draper GIF on GIFER - by Darana

Mr. Harper drinks. That’s the insinuation with a lot of the folks in this song. Drinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the song specifically mentions that the only reason Mr. Harper wasn’t there is because he stayed at Kelly’s Bar too late and either slept through the meeting or was too drunk/hungover to attend. If your drinking gets in the way of you being a parent, you’re not someone who should be a role model. If he was a widower and was leaving his kids unattended while he drank, he would be lower on the list, but because the song didn’t elaborate, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his wife attends to the children while he gets blotto at Kelly’s bar. Classic Don Draper move, really, but I’m willing to bet Mr. Harper isn’t into debauchery as much as Don Draper was. Mad Men is so great.

2. The Widow Jones

I really went back and forth on whether the Widow Jones should even be considered a bad influence. The exact line in the song is “[a]nd shouldn’t widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?” What’s the insinuation here? Is the Widow Jones trying to get herself back out there after losing her husband, making some love connections, and then those love connections are semi-public because her she carelessly leaves her window shades up and everyone can see the…connection…happening? Or is the Widow Jones just living life and voyeurs and other creeps watch her through her windows, which might be open but would require dedicated snooping to see through? Frankly I don’t have a problem with the Widow Jones because she’s doing her own thing in her own house, and if she wants to display it, then whatever. However, if she is, in fact, engaging in carnal actions in front of a window in a concerted effort to show off, then that does make her bad because intentionally exposing kids to that is gross. But at least it sounds like she’s not neglecting her kid to do anything and is handling her widowdom better than Mrs. Johnson is handling hers, so no harm, no foul in my book.

1. Shirley Thompson

Is Shirley Thompson even fit to be criticized? I think not. She showed up to a PTA meeting with gin on her breath. I don’t have kids, but I go to enough pointless, bureaucratic meetings to know that sometimes a drink or two is exactly what you need to get through those wastes of time with your sanity in tact. My dad would sometimes have a Jim Beam and Coke while he took us trick-or-treating, and my sister and I are fairly well-adjusted adults with jobs and clean criminal records, so I feel like Mrs. Johnson’s critique of Shirley Thompson was a little cruel and unnecessary. Seriously, though, sometimes before I have late afternoon Zoom calls I’ll pour a little bourbon in a coffee cup because I know what a waste of time the meeting will be. I’m #TeamShirleyThompson on this one, y’all. Frankly, drinking before a meeting is a Peggy Olson move, and Peggy was one of the best characters on Mad Men.

The lesson here is that people living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Something. Something about stones, definitely, and basically not being a piece of crap hypocrite. The other lesson is that we here at Cosas Totum want to wish Jeannie C. Riley the happiest of 76th birthdays!

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