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.