I have Sirius Satellite Radio in my car and my presets include music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. On a recent ride, Ode to Billie Joe came on and I found myself haunted by the writing as well as being transported by the eerie music backing it. I was really happy to learn that Bobbie Gentry, the singer, wrote it and this was her debut recording.
Although it was created just short of 50 years ago, I doubt that any current readers are not familiar with the song.
Here is the first verse:
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”
And then she said “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge”
“Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Look at how specific the phrases are: The third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. Lovely alliteration with the d sounds, too. Very strong images. She paints such a clear picture for us to immerse ourselves. Great verbs in the next line Choppin‘ cotton and balin‘ hay. Very specific and also very vivid. In seconds, the listener is transported to the Delta on a summer day doing field work. And, then the day is done and we have a leisurely walt back to dinner. I love the introduction of Mama who runs the house reminding them to wipe their feet. And then the refrain … the horrible news about Billy Joe MacAllister.
Second verse as good as the first:
And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
We swoop back to a mundane dinner after this terrible news about Billy Joe. Mama passing the peas and Papa criticizing poor Billy Joe and asking for the biscuits. Then going on about his five more acres – another beautiful specific reference that also spotlights his indifference to the tragedy. And Mama comes back caring, at least recognizing that it was at least a shame.
You can enjoy the remaining lyrics as she sings them. Here is Ms Gentry performing her work on You Tube:
It’s fascinating to me that the world reaction to the song at the time was to wonder about what they were throwing off the bridge. How superficial. The most touching element was with their cold indifference to Billy Joe’s death at dinner… pass the biscuits, please.
That’s the Ode to Billy Joe. Here is the Ode to Bobbie Gentry. Would that it were written as well.
Bobbie Gentry loved music as a child and her grandmother traded one of her cows for a piano for Bobbie. She later taught herself guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Her mother divorced when Bobbie was an early teen and she grew up in Los Angeles. Playing gigs at a local country club, she took her name from the movie Ruby Gentry.
She recorded Ode … in 40 minutes on July 10, 1967, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Arranger Jimmie Haskell put two cellos and four violins behind her to fit her guitar playing. Ode … was the B side of the record with Mississippi Delta on the A side. Fortunately, the DJs felt otherwise and played the B side more. Ode sold 750,000 copies in its first week and knocked The Beatles All You Need is Love out of the Number one spot, according to Performing Songwriter.
Wikipedia reported, “Ode to Billie Joe” is a 1967 song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry (born July 27, 1944), a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in late July, was a number-one hit in the United States, and became a big international seller. The song is ranked #419 on Rolling Stone’s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The recording of “Ode to Billie Joe” generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry and one win for arranger Jimmie Haskell.
This song has sold over 3 million copies worldwide.
Ode was made into a motion picture in 1975 and earned $50 million on a $1.0 million budget. Gentry’s contract gave her a 10 percent ownership in the film.
She played to packed houses at the Hughes Las Vegas casinos, Frontier and Desert Inn, in Las Vegas for the rest of that decade. She quit in 1980 to devote herself to her newborn son. Her final TV appearance was in 1981 on an Ed McMahon NBC special. She sang Mama A Rainbow to her mother Ruby in the audience. Her composition Fancy has been included on four Reba McIntyre CDs. Jazz artist Bill Evans turned her Mornin’ Glory into his signature song in his final years.
I hope Bobbie Gentry has a good life and I thank her for this brilliant creation that has given so much pleasure to so many of us.