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Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”

| July 27, 2013 | 74 Comments

In August 1967, Lyndon Johnson announced that he was sending 45,000 more troops to Vietnam. Black power advocate Stokely Carmichael called for violent revolution in the streets. Beatles manager Brian Epstein died from an overdose of sleeping pills. But around water coolers, the hot topic was what Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

The mystery created by Bobbie Gentry in her debut single “Ode To Billie Joe” cast a spell over the entire country. Set to a backing of spare acoustic guitar chords and atmospheric strings, Gentry’s sensual, Southern-fried voice relates the story of two Mississippi teenage lovers who share a dark secret that eventually leads to the boy’s suicide. And over 40 years later, despite cinematic details in the song’s lyric, we still don’t know exactly what happened up there on Choctaw Ridge.

Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. In the few interviews that she gave, Gentry touched briefly on her rural upbringing, saying, “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many playthings.”

She did have music though. From the gospel sounds of the local Baptist church to old folk songs, Bobbie was fascinated. “My grandmother noticed how much I liked music, so she traded one of her milk cows for a neighbor’s piano,” Gentry said. Taking to the instrument immediately, she wrote her first song at age 7, a ditty called “My Dog Sergeant is a Good Dog.” After her parents divorced, 13-year-old Bobbie moved to Palm Springs, Calif. with her mother, who quickly remarried. With the family’s improved fortunes, Bobbie taught herself guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. As a teenager, she started playing gigs at a local country club, taking her stage name from Ruby Gentry, a movie about a poor, rurual seductress.

After graduating high school, Bobbie, by then a raven-haired beauty, went to Vegas, where she worked in a Folies Bergere–style review, dancing and singing. In the mid-’60s, she moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, finally landing at the Conservatory of Music, where she studied composition and arranging. A demo tape she made ended up on the desk of Capitol Records A&R man Kelly Gordon.

“Ode” was recorded on July 10, 1967 at Studio C in the Capitol tower. Accompanying herself on guitar, Bobbie nailed a keeper take in 40 minutes. Arranger Jimmie Haskell told MOJO, “I asked Kelly, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Just put some strings on it so we won’t be embarrassed. No one will ever hear it anyway.’ The song sounded to me like a movie—those wonderful lyrics. I had a small group of strings—two cellos and four violins to fit her guitar-playing. I was branching out in my own head for the first time, creating something that I liked because we thought no one was ever gonna hear it.”

The finished version of “Ode” was over seven minutes long. Capitol edited it down to a more manageable four minutes and stuck it on the flip side of “Mississippi Delta.” But those were the days when DJs still had minds of their own, and as in the stories of so many classic hits, the B-side became the A-side.

It sounded like nothing else on the radio, Gentry’s husky voice inviting listeners into a world that was as dark and exotic as a Flannery O’Connor story. Not long after the song’s debut, the water cooler talk started.

As Gentry told Fred Bronson, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.

“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”

In its first week of release, “Ode” sold 750,000 copies, knocking “All You Need Is Love” out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. It stayed there for four weeks. The song won Gentry three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist (she was the first Country artist to ever win in this category).

The enigma of her best-known song is nothing compared to that of Bobbie Gentry herself. In the early ’70s, she was riding high—headlining in Vegas, duetting with Glen Campbell on several hits, hosting her own TV series. Then around 1975, after contributing music to a movie based on “Ode,” she simply checked out. She has not been heard from in over 35 years. All requests for interviews, recordings and performances have been denied. She is said to be living in the Los Angeles area.

— By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 87


Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (74)

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  1. david hess says:

    the song was great , the original lyrics were on display somewhere at a music hall.
    i personally thought that Brother Taylor was the key in the mix of the song but unless we see the rest of the lyrics, we will never know

  2. Al says:

    Was there in fact a person, Billy Joe McAllister, who committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge? The bridge in the video doesn’t look high enough to offer a lethal fall. And if it was in the Mississippi delta I doubt that there would be any heights sufficient to be lethal. But he could have weighted himself down and drowned.

    I always assumed the song was beautiful poetic fiction. But if the details of the song are fact and Bobbie Gentry was in love with him, then I commend Gentry for not only her poetic and musical talent but also her bravery in sharing her deeply intimate story. I remember thinking that the family was unwittingly callous. Save gentry herself, the world gave not much thought to Billy Joe. Maybe that’s why he committed suicide. Gentry’s clandestine love for him was not enough to save him. I thought the pain of that on top of the loss of her lover and her empathy for him as she herself is treated with insensitivity to be the main message. The public reaction seemed to miss or at least not appreciate that aspect of the story. Then the movie comes out and mucks up the song. It’s no wonder Gentry retired from public life.

  3. BB says:

    I can tell you from going to school with Bobbie in Greenwood Ms that she had little to do with the writing of the movie or it’s plot. While she made royalties off of the movie which is expected of any song writer she explained to the director that she didn’t know why Billy jumped off the bridge. Bobbie’s family lived across the road from the Tallahatchie River on Claiborne St. in Greenwood and seeing it from her front yard inspired her to write about the river.
    There was a Tallahatchie Bridge a few blocks from our house in Greenwood which looked very similar to the one in the movie which we all played around in the early 50′s which goes to Money Ms. However this bridge is not the one in the film. The film bridge is in Roebuck Ms about 6 miles from Greenwood and has since been replaced with a concrete bridge. The connection to Till with Billy is preposterous for the poster who made that comment. Hope that clears up some of your questions…

  4. JE says:

    In the movie, it was a doll he threw off the bridge.

  5. Jack says:

    The best part about the song is that we DON’T know what it is. It could be anything. I respect her for maintaining the mystery and never telling what it was that they threw off the bridge. It makes the song 10X more badass.

  6. Bobby Rogers says:

    Well I think Bobbie Gentry is hotter than fire. I cant believe she has let wonder the two questions for so long and only she has the answer and I believe there is an answer Sure would like to see a picture of her today I just bet she is still good a looking lady. Those Mississippi girls are the best I know a few mmmm

  7. RD says:

    It’s Kool-Aid, folks, not Cool-aid!

  8. KC says:

    You should have addressed it under Susan Kaspar’s comments… coolaid’s a flowin.

  9. Bee says:

    Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the bridge because he was struggling with the fact that he was in love with a young girl, but physically attracted to a man. He had a sexual encounter with that man. He realized that he loved the girl but could not be with her in the way they both wanted him to be. See the movie “Ode to Billy Joe”.

    • Scot says:

      The homosexual angle is screenwriter Herman Raucher’s invention and has nothing to do with Bobbie Gentry’s song, which was released nearly a decade before the movie.

      • KG says:

        Bravo, Scot…well said. That movie was an attempt to milk the popularity of the song, and injected at least two sensational elements that had nothing to do with Bobby Gentry’s hit opus…

      • BB says:

        Scot is correct. Only Hollywood can put that kind of twist on a good story and ruin it. It was at a time in Greenwood’s history when Hollywood was attacking it because of our southern ways and they haven’t let up since.

  10. Sponge Bob says:

    The theory about Emmett Till is about as plausible as saying that the German co-pilot recently committed suicide and mass murder because, thanks to continued teaching in German schools that successive generations of Germans -not even born during the war- must bear the guilt of the holocaust, and thus, he did the bastardly deed out of his own guilt. I enjoyed the keen observation about the dates failing to support this -not that they were necessary to destroy such a far-out idea, but it’s always nice to see the facts come into play, bringing some good ole’ logic to the big picture.

  11. SUSAN KASPAR says:

    This song has been a favorite of mine ever since it first aired.
    I’ve always thought there was no mystery at all as to why BJ committed suicide by jumping from the Tallahatchie Bridge – surely it was because he had a part in the murder of Emmett Till.?

    • KC says:

      ABSURB RADICAL LEFT WING RACIST DRIBBLE! You’re drink’n too much of that damn Cool-Aid… it has to do with love unfulfilled…

    • Lyric Thai says:

      It’s an interesting theory. However, Till was murdered in late August and the song suggests Billy Joe’s suicide took place prior to June 3. The dates don’t work.

  12. Chuck Franklin says:

    This is the most haunting song that I have ever listened to. And I have been a music fan since this was out. And what a lovely woman that sang it to us.

  13. Sponge Bob says:

    The reason Gentry hasn’t been heard from is that a few years after she disappeared, her body was found in the Tallahatchie River; what force that song! Thanks for clearing up a 40-year mystery for me! How poetic and creative of her to NOT be clear about people’s most immediate theories yet instead to put the obvious in front of us -the lack of concern for the participants- and wait to see who’s first to notice. Great piece!

    • KG says:

      Pure BS, K.C.

      Bobby Gentry retired from performing and lived in the southwest in obscurity by choice. Your tale of her body being found in the river is pure fantasy. Go pedal it elsewhere….

      • KC says:

        So, K.G.
        Where you addressing your comments to Sponge Bob’s comments here and mistaking his comments as mine, or you drank enough COOL-AID that you have MINDLESS MUSH making decisions for your misguided comments come true… God help tge rest of us, listen/reading your dribble…get off your weed and think for once…your pee is running down your leg…
        Clean up your act (out).

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