Jeannie C. Riley’s The Back Side Of Dallas.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week, in this space, we’ll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we’ll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours
In 1968, Jeannie C. Riley scored a huge international hit with “Harper Valley PTA” from her debut album of the same name. That song, which describes one woman’s outrage when her daughter brings a note home from school that decries her supposedly scandalous behavior, helped Riley become the first woman to top Billboard‘s Hot 100 and the U.S. Country Singles charts with the same song.
By the 1970s, though, Riley became a born-again Christian and distanced from earlier songs like “Harper Valley PTA.” She released 1969’s Things Go Better With Love before all that happened, though. Good thing, too, as that album would feature a phenomenal song called “The Back Side of Dallas,” which told another somewhat scandalous tale, this one about a young woman’s move to Dallas gone awry.
The tale begins with a nameless woman sitting alone in a bar, her mind drifting wistfully back to earlier days as she recalls just how she ended up in her present state. Her tale is of course a sad one: After moving to Dallas to be with a male companion, the man suddenly ended their relationship, leaving the woman all alone in a new town and with no way to support herself.
She’s distraught over as much, lamenting that “a tenth grade education won’t get you no kinda job here in big D.”
But in the year this song was released, though, women only represented 35.3 percent of the U.S. workforce. So it could be argued that even with a high school diploma her employment options would have probably still been few and far between.
Nonetheless, this is clearly a woman strapped for cash. So, as a last resort, she overcomes her pride (hey, this is Texas, after all) and begins working the “back side of Dallas” as a woman of the night. She justifies this behavior in her mind with the lyrics, “hunger pains and pride’s a thing that just don’t go hand in hand for long.”
She was hardly the first woman in Dallas, however, to ever resort to selling her body to make ends meet. Despite being illegal in the eyes of Texas state law, prostitution was pretty rampant in Dallas in the early 1900s — especially around the red-light district known as “Frogtown,” which sat where the Woodall Rogers Freeway stands today.
Sometime around 1906, city officials began trying to restrict this behavior to the Frogtown district rather than trying in vain to enforce the state’s laws. This idea was made pretty apparent in a 1910 city ordinance: “We find that under the existing conditions, bawdy houses and bawds are promiscuously scattered throughout the City, greatly menacing the decent neighborhoods and offending decent and respectable communities and parts of the City… We feel that the measure hereby suggested by us will entirely eliminate such objectionable characters from the decent neighborhoods of the City.”
By 1911, though, the Texas Supreme Court struck down that ordinance, and, by 1914, Dallas had officially shut down it Frogtown district. Not that any of this ended such behavior in town entirely.
Take, for instance, the hundreds of sexually oriented business, questionable “massage” parlors and shady escort services that still operate in Dallas today. Many of them still advertise prominently in publications all over town.
According to an April 2 Dallas Morning News article written by Tod Robberson regarding the Dallas Observer, “There are 26 ads for restaurants, two for fashion/accessories, one for home furnishings/home improvement [in the paper]… A bit farther down the page is a category called adult entertainment, which has 13,773 ads.”
That’s hardly the lone modern time connection to be heard in this song, though.
In Riley’s seedy Dallas snapshot, despite her character’s admitted frequent use of alcohol and pills, this seemingly defenseless woman knows at least one decent safety precaution: She is well-versed in the art of hailing taxis.
It could have been out of necessity — she was a destitute woman, so it wouldn’t be inconceivable to assume she couldn’t afford a car of her own — or she could have known just how dangerous driving inebriated in this town really is.
Dallas is a big city, and yet it doesn’t really have great a public transportation system.
As such, many Dallas drinkers find themselves in situations that they probably shouldn’t be driving in.
As a result, Texas leads national lists of alcohol-related traffic deaths by state on an almost annual basis.
A 2002 study by Louisiana State University also listed Dallas as the city with most alcohol-related traffic deaths among the 97 cities they examined.
No, we may not all find ourselves so down and out that we have to enter the world’s oldest profession, but we could all probably take at least one piece of advice from Jeannie C. Riley’s song — especially when we’re out drinking.
This would indeed be a safer city if “every taxi driver knew [our] name.”