It is the familiarity that first draws you in, the traditional sound of the picked guitar and Bobbie Gentry’s tenor edged in gravel.
Just another day in the Delta, she sings, brother and sister finishing up some work in the cotton fields, heading to the house for dinner — all is normal, familiar, the family around the dinner table sharing bits of news and gossip just as they do everyday, the violin and cello swooping in to lend atmosphere.
“And then she said ‘I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge / Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge'”.
That simple declaration opens the song into a world of questions that have no answers, a world of hidden and suppressed guilt, of surreptitious connections and the hypocrisy at the center of country music’s nostalgia industry.
“Ode to Billie Joe” was a surprise hit in 1967, not only topping the country charts, but the pop and what was then known as the “black” charts. This was 1967, the year of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, of the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Summer of Love in San Francisco. As the liner notes to Chickasaw Country Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry point out, the song “flew out of record shops, selling 750,000 copies its first week, a phenomenal achievement in 1967 for an unknown with no advance hype to promote it.” The song knocked “All You Need Is Love” from number 1 and stayed in the top spot a month.
“Ode to Billie Joe” is one of 23 songs on the new Shout! Factory collection released in April, the best of which connect to the listener through the building up of small details, the plaintive yearning of a young woman wanting to tag along with her father as he heads into town or the accumulation of slights that turn the title character in “Fancy”, a poor country girl, into a high-price call girl. Chickasaw Country Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry includes most of what Gentry did best (and some outstanding liner notes by Holly George-Warren), a mix of cross-over pop songs and folk-tinged country that remind us more than 30 years after she stepped away from the limelight just how unusual a talent she was (though it does not include her duets with Glen Campbell).
Songs like “Mississippi”, with its driving blues line and almost nursery-rhyme lyric, or the comical “Bugs”, with its long list of Delta insects, or the darkly buoyant “Casket Vignette” are a testament to her songwriting and performing talents.
But it is “Ode to Billie Joe” that she will be best remembered for — and with good reason. “Ode to Billie Joe” was like nothing on the radio at the time. Rock and roll had been growing more adventurous and more pretentious, inflated with a sense of its own power, fueled by drugs and excess. Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds were masterful examples of the art form’s potential, but they also prompted a host of lesser bands like Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly, and far too many others to tread down the path of overindulgence, the tight harmonies and song structures that drove those classic albums giving way to studio gimmickry and intemperate noodling in the name of experimentation.
The country dial that summer was ruled by what could best be described as slickly produced rural pop. While there were some great things being played — Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn both had hits, and Johnny and June Carter Cash unleashed their brilliant “Jackson” — they were not the norm.
It was into this atmosphere that 23-year-old Roberta Lee Streeter, renamed Bobbie Gentry, released her first single. “Ode to Billie Joe” is built on the commonplace, its truly tragic narrative pieced together over dinner as family members pass the black-eyed peas and comment on Billie Joe amid the small talk and the apple pie.
The tale unfolds and we begin to wonder what it is the singer is keeping from us, what it is she won’t say. Brother remembers that “he and Tom and Billie Joe / Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show”, and that the singer was talking to Billie Joe after church on Sunday. And “‘That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today'”, Mama says. He’ll be there for Sunday dinner, “‘Oh, by the way, / He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge / And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge'”.
But what? Gentry never lets on, and as the song moves to its conclusion, we find that Papa has died and Mama has become frail and broken, never recovering from his death, and Brother has married and moved on, and our singer is making regular pilgrimages up to Choctaw Ridge.
There is little like this in popular music — the only corollary I can think of is “Clothesline Saga” from The Basement Tapes, which uses the matter of fact to underscore what is happening offstage. But that song seems incomplete when measured against “Ode to Billie Joe”, almost skeletal, even with the Band offering full backing. “Ode to Billie Joe” is a painful, chilling story in the best tradition of the Southern Gothic, a tale that could have been told by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. That is high praise, indeed.