Song Of The Day by Eric Berman – The Jukebox Series #60– Bobbie Gentry: “Ode To Billie Joe” b/w “Mississippi Delta” – Capitol 45-5950 (U6/V6)
“The Jukebox Series” focuses on the 80 records that inhabit my 1963 Seeburg LPC1 jukebox. I’ve had my jukebox (or as I like to call it “the prehistoric iPod”) for a little over twelve years and in that time I’d like to think that I’ve perfected the mix of 45s within.
Over 45 years after its release, people still wonder what Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge which led to Billie Joe’s suicide the following day in today’s jukebox classic, “Ode To Billie Joe.” The song is perhaps one of the greatest story songs of all time, and it unfolds over a family dinner conversation about Billie Joe’s suicide that might implicate one of the members sitting around the table.
It is one of the most asked questions Bobbie Gentry gets when people meet her, and over 45 years later, she’s still not telling. When the song was turned into a novel and then a screenplay for the 1976 movie by Herman Raucher, he met with Gentry who stated that she had no idea what was thrown off the bridge. In the book and film, Billie Joe kills himself after a homosexual experience and the object he’s seen throwing off the bridge is the narrator’s rag doll.
Gentry has gone on to say that the song was really about the indifference reflected during the casual dinner conversation relating the tale of a suicide by someone the family sitting around the table apparently knew well. Gentry: “The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of peoples’ reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.” (Wikipedia)
Nevertheless, “Ode To Billie Joe” earned eight Grammy nominations, and won three for Gentry and one for arranger Jimmy Haskell in 1968.
Bobbie Gentry performed one of the greatest disappearing acts in all of music history. Unlike Elvis Presley and the still persistent Elvis sightings, Gentry really is alive and well and living in California…in glorious obscurity.
But back in 1967, you couldn’t turn a radio on without hearing her single “Ode To Billie Joe,” or tune into a variety show on TV without seeing her performing it. In her wake, Gentry left seven interesting albums of varying quality including Ode To Billie Joe, the album that established her, a duet album with Glen Campbell, and one bona-fide lost classic, The Delta Sweete, which is the criminally unknown concept album she released in 1968 about growing up in the deep South of the Mississippi Delta.
While “Ode” established Gentry with the American public, the song pretty much overshadowed the album it was culled from, as well as everything else that came after it. However, the album does hold the distinction for being the record that knocked The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper off the top of the charts after holding that position for 15 weeks in 1967.
The song was originally the B-side of a demo recording of “Mississippi Delta” that Gentry made as an audition for Capitol Records. It was said to be a straight guitar and voice recording that lasted over seven minutes, encompassing eleven verses. Capitol Records realized how strong “Ode” was and had Gentry cut the song’s length in half and re-record it with strings. It was then released as the A-side with “Mississippi Delta” on the flip. The original long version of the song has never been released and it is questionable if it actually still exists at all.
Bob Dylan paid tribute to Gentry’s “Ode” with the song “Clothes Line Saga” which was recorded with The Band during the 1967 sessions for what became The Basement Tapes. The song carried the working title of “Answer To Ode” and in it Dylan parodies the conversational tone of Gentry’s song.
Gentry would go on to release six more albums before removing herself from the spotlight entirely after years of performing in Vegas and a failed TV career. She retired in 1978 at the age of 36, never to be professionally heard from again.
Both of today’s songs were culled from Gentry’s first studio album Ode To Billie Joe, and the flip of today’s single is the swampy confection “Mississippi Delta,” that kicked off the album with a very sinister horn part and infectious hook spelling Mississippi as “MI-double S-I-double S-I-double P-I.”
Today, Bobbie Gentry’s career is ripe for rediscovery. Come back Bobbie, the world is still waiting…