50 Years on from ‘Ode To Billie Joe’

Alex Headlines, News

21st August 1967 may be the release date of this classic album – 50 years ago today – but it is not the most important date surrounding Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”, nor the most memorable. That title would have to be awarded to 3rd June, another sleepy dusty Delta day… so goes the album’s titular lead single.

The song’s narrator and her family return from field work for dinner, and while at the table, some nonchalant discussion of a local boy’s apparent suicide is discussed. Billie Joe McAllister jumped to his death from the local Tallahatchie Bridge. Nobody connects the cotton-picking narrator’s sudden loss of appetite to the abrupt death of the titular character, even after a local preacher informs her mother that he saw her and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge together. What could it have been? It’s not explained in the song. All we can tell from reading between the lines is that the she is having trouble digesting the news, and is far more bothered by it than her parents and brother.

Ode to Billie Joe

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

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

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
I’ll have another piece-a apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And mama said to me, child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round; papa caught it, and he died last spring
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

The untold reason for Billie Joe’s suicide and her family’s indifference while discussing the matter perfectly illustrate one notion – that life was tough for a family who spent their days in the fields of Mississippi, and perhaps suicide and tragedy was more common than we know. How often would such misfortunes have to occur to not inquire further? Gentry is the perfect raconteur for this kind of social, now historical commentary. Her immense beauty and desert-dry wit are a juxtaposition so brilliant, it would be almost a shame not to have the mystery of her chosen disappearance to ponder over forever more. But, for many, Gentry’s claim that revealing all would divert attention from the more important themes is exasperatingly too little to quench our thirst.

Per the final verse, within one year, her (suspected) boyfriend has committed suicide, her father has died from a virus, her brother moved away, and her mother has become despondent from tragedy. The only thing we do know about her and her feelings is that she continues to drop flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge, after her lost loved one. Gentry is reflected in the song’s narrator, for only the two of them will ever know exactly why Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Perhaps it was karma that left her solitary in her health, returning like a ghost to the spot that began her misfortunes.

Gentry’s iconic Mini Martin guitar, and the ominous yet enchanting orchestral arrangement open the song, before her enviable contralto begins to gently exude its most affecting component – the lyrics. Half a century old, they have aged like fine wine, now serving as a retrospective to a life style that may be called bleak by today’s standards. Perfectly summarised as a “southern gothic”, the insight into rural life is so well preserved in the Delta Queen’s irresistible, enigmatic vocal. “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many play things. My Granddaddy liked possum stew, so whenever he caught one, he’d cut off the tail for me to play with”, the reliable narrator is quoted to have said.

In the definitive live performance of the song, [ABOVE] she returns to sit at a prop dinner table once she’s done performing, amongst eerie mannequins representing the victims-of-circumstance family. It’s quintessential folk music, despite its success on the pop, rock, country and easy listening charts back in its day. She performs hauntingly the account of early 20th century Mississippi Delta life and her experiences of the attitudes of the church-going, hay-baling communities of the county, and all her locations are very much real.

50 YEARS OF FAN THEORY AND RUMOURS

It was not uncommon in the 1960s for a song to be shortened for radio consumption – Loretta Lynn’s 1969 autobiographical ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ has several lost verses itself; tragically. But in the case of ‘Ode’, the missing verses treatment seems to be little more than a rumour. It would fit that it was only practical reasons of technological shortcomings that denied us Billie Joe’s full story, but there is no evidence to support the gossip. Perhaps, at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to write, arrange, produce and play the vast majority of her own album, the idea that she could have been so clever as to write it that way may not have crossed people’s minds. That’s hardly the most surprising information surrounding the #1 hit song. What other #1 song can you think of that is so unlikely? So un-pop? It’s hard to imagine any other song so casually dismal and chorus-free reaching any such level of success; a succulent mystery inevitably continues to surround “Ode to Billie Joe”.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BOBBIE GENTRY?

The Chickasaw County Child with the enviable hair sold millions of copies of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, which won three of the nine Grammys it was nominated for. The single and the album knocked The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ and “Sgt. Pepper’s” off the US #1 spot respectively, the latter after a 15-week reign. She then had two more UK hits in 1969, the #1 ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, and the top 5 ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ from her duets album with the late Glen Campbell. A spattering of further singles, including the hit ’Fancy’, throughout the 1970s, a Vegas residency alongside Elvis and Tom Jones, and Gentry thereafter retreated from the spotlight after her final public TV appearance on Mother’s Day 1981. This was a short while after the spawning of a mid-70s Hollywood film that butchers Gentry’s story, and only warrants mention for its high budget-gross ratio, which no doubt earnt her a pretty penny.

Almost 40 years later, there have been many conflicting accounts of her whereabouts, and she has never entirely slipped from the consciousness of the music-adoring public. Online forums abound with rumours, and piecing together the puzzle of her disappearance. As recently as I can find, a Washington Post reporter claims to have spent a very short while on the phone to her. While I don’t advocate the pestering of someone who has decided not to be found, it’s as gripping a story as that she’s famous for writing, but one detail makes it all the more interesting – it’s real life.

As much as I would itch to read an autobiography, in the unlikely event she would ever release one, maybe I’d stop myself from doing so – the mystery adds so much to the song, the artist, and the whole story. I do believe even the best of us would struggle to resist that temptation. Perhaps, at this 50th year anniversary, we’ll be treated to some new information or appearance.

About the Author

Alex

I'm Alex, 21 and from Greenwich, home of C2C! A lifetime lover and player of music, I got into Country during my early teens and I've been hooked ever since. I want to be part of the new and exciting UK Country movement, heighten exposure, and show people just how great the genre can be.