2021 Song Draft- Round 6 Pick 7: Hanspostcard selects ‘Ode To Billie Joe’- Bobbie Gentry.
She had me at ‘It was the third of June, another dusty Delta day.’ I was only six years old when I first heard it in the summer of 1967 on a trip ‘down the river’ with my grandparents. It has been fifty-four years and she still has me every time I hear this song. It’s like a movie [I know they did make a movie based on the song- which I purposely have never seen.] This is one of those few songs or albums which every single time I listen to it- it has my total attention. The rest of the world for the next four plus minutes disappears- as I disappear into the song [The album which takes me away like this every time is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.]
The song takes the form of a first person narrative performed over sparse acoustic accompaniment with strings in the background. It tells of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to the news of the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter (and narrator) is connected. The song received wide attention for the audience’s intrigue as for what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off of the Tallahatchie Bridge. Gentry later clarified that the song intended to portray the family’s indifference to the suicide in what she deemed “a study in unconscious cruelty”, while she remarked that the object thrown was not relevant to the message of her composition.
‘Ode To Billie Joe’ would go to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart- and #17 on the Country chart. Rolling Stone would list it in their 500 Greatest Songs Ever list at #419.
This was the first hit for Bobbie Gentry- and her first album was still a couple months away from release. ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ was a sensation- it led to 8 Grammy Award nominations- and three wins- including Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Her debut album also titled Ode To Billie Joe- went to #1. She would only have three more Top 40 hits- none of them reaching the Top 25. I thought of Bobbie Gentry until a few years ago- as a spectacular one hit wonder- but then a box set was released of her work titled The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters. I read a few rave reviews and my interest took me to buying it- what a great box set. She may not have had more hits but the quality of her work is stunning. Bobbie Gentry including an album of duets with Glen Campbell- released a total of seven albums from 1967-71. The box set on 8 discs- contains all the albums plus 75 bonus tracks of demos, alternate takes and live material. One of the best box sets ever released. Bobbie Gentry’s last album was released in 1971- fifty years ago. She didn’t just disappear in 1971- she would make appearances for another decade- but last performed in 1981- forty years ago. Since then she has been laying low. No one seems to know for sure where she lives- in the Memphis area or California – in a gated community seems to be the answer.
Here is an article from The Guardian on Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry.
The beautiful southern belle. Can we still say that? She was a part of my teen years and this song gets me everytime. Her and Glen Campbell made a great duo. If you listen to her other songs, it’ obvious that this girl is pure MS. Great accent. I read that she lives in Las Vegas, but who really knows. Kind of like Elvis.
Whatever she has been up to the past 40 years- I hope she’s happy. She was one of my first crushes- her and Elizabeth Montgomery…
she was married to Jim Stafford , of all people, briefly. But seems content to live a low-profile life now
I read that some time back. Odd.
You can, here.
I love this song. I was three years old when it was released, but it’s been a favorite for many years.
I drove across the Tallahatchie Bridge in 2017 … and even though it was September, you know I sang this song as I did it. 😉
I have seen pictures of the Tallahatchie Bridge- it wasn’t what I imagined.
Amazing song – such great and cinematic story-telling! It’s a pity Bobbie Gentry couldn’t the success of the tune and her first album. Goes to show how strange and cruel the music business can be!
I can’t hear her sing without falling in love with her.
I was also only 3 when this came out but seem to remember it well. Such a great great story. I get that her point was the indifference of the family to this tragedy but I’ve always felt that the song was a big mystery – clearly the narrator has some type of secret relationship with Billy Joe and now has to suffer privately at the news of the suicide. Bit why did he do it? Does she know? Did it have something to do with her. All these unknowns make the song to me a classic
exactly- if she had spelled it all out- no mystery- i like the mystery of it– and how the family is pretty clueless about the relationship between the two-
Fantastic article about her too – thanks for posting.
Last comment – I love how the strings descend after the line about dropping something off the bridge – you can see whatever it was in your mind floating down into the water
I have always liked it that she never has said what it was that was thrown off the bridge- leaves it to your imagination…
Exactly! And whether it was related to the suicide or not. Really adds to the song.
Brilliant song. Excellent in writing, singing and playing. Should be higher than #419 of all-time… though RS probably no longer have it on the newest list at all since they had to put in a representation or hip hop and of course BTS to knock the Beatles down the list…
I think Rolling Stone gave up covering music maybe 35-40 years ago- what a joke their latest album and song lists are..
I only read an incredulous newswire story about the song list…’what happened to ‘Like a Rolling Stone” sort of thing. Making a fatal biz mistake alienating old customer base in effort to pull in new 14 year old readers…as if.
I vividly remember this song when it came out. Even though set near the Tallahatchie, it has the univeral appeal that it could be set along anybody’s hometown bridge. I like hearing what she said about the irrelevance of whatever was thrown off the bridge as it lets me see the song with new eyes. Bobbie has a sultriness to her voice that is hard to resist. Great pick, Hans, and good write-up.
You’re welcome 🙂
Great pick, Hans! I fell in love with her voice when I first heard this. I’m not sure this is the word I want, but her voice had a certain “smokiness” to it. I love it
I love a great story song, and this is one of the best!
I like a good story song and Bobbi sings a good one.
It is like a movie Hans….she portrayed the south correctly…the south that I knew back then…not pickup trucks etc…just a normal southerner.
Speaking of, you’ve seen the movie, yes?
Yea….but I meant more that this song IS a movie in itself
Tells a compelling story, yes.
I love her accent or style…that is the way I heard many talk when I grew up
Released in July 1967…I wasn’t quite a year old just yet. I grew up hearing it on AM on my parents stereo cabinet and in the car. I love this song and the movie is good but, shocking. Want a spoiler?
What a great pick. I remember it well as a kid too. My parents and their peers played it a lot. It wasn’t only the rural south where a family sat around the table and gossiped about others nearby. When this song plays, I picture all of us sitting around my grandparents’ farmhouse table in KS, while the grownups tell what the neighbors have been up to; and at the end of the drive was the bridge we played on. When I was young, I fixated on the story of Billy Joe. As an adult, the last verse resonates with me–how much life changes in just a year. It’s a written masterpiece, imo.
Thanks for sharing the memory of KS.
Perfect storytelling. I like that line about ‘pass the biscuits please?’ Life goes on around the table for everyone but one.
‘Louisiana Man’ is dipped in the Deep South too.
Love this song too, and still have the 45 single. It’s one the greatest ‘story’ songs of all time, and one of my favorites from the 60s.
I’ve only really heard this a couple of times – I guess it’s a bit country and doesn’t fit the normal classic rock and pop radio formats. It’s great though.
I know what happened to Bobbie Gentry, she left an indelible imprint on all who heard “Ode to Billie Joe”.
An exceptional combination of voice, arrangement, presentation, and mysterious, melancholy, but extremely cool vibes. Get the chills from the very first guitar strums and words sung. An entrancing song.