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Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”

| July 27, 2013 | 100 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 (100)

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  1. Becki Thompson says:

    Nobody knows what happened TRUTHFULLY but B.G.whether the song is Fact or Fiction. Just a different perspective on it. Did anyone ever think that maybe Billy Jo is NOT DEAD? Just because he jumped doesnt mean he Died??

  2. Laurabelle says:

    And for those who requested the Lyrics:
    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 we walked back to the house to eat
    And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”
    And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
    Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

    Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
    “Well, Billie 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”
    Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
    Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
    And now Billie Joe MacAllister 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 of apple pie, you know it just don’t seem right”
    “I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge”
    “And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

    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 Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

    A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
    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 wanna 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

  3. Laurabelle says:

    Quote from Wikipedia: (maybe this will help)
    In 1967 Gentry produced her first single, the country rock “Mississippi Delta”. However, it was the flipside, “Ode to Billie Joe”, with its sparse sound and controversial lyrics, that started to receive airplay in the U.S. Capitol’s shortened version added to the song’s mystery. Questions arose among the listeners: what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Gentry herself has commented on the song, saying that its real theme was indifference:[9]

    “Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people’s 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.”

    ftnt9: “Biography”. Ode to Bobbie Gentry. Archived from the original on 2009-10-26.

  4. Sheresa says:

    I read a book about it…fiction of course. The secret was actually that Billy Joe’s boss (a man) had raised him and he could live with it. She knew the secret and pretended to be pregnant and went away to make people think he’d jumped because of that to save his “reputation”. Back then, he would have never been accepted even though he was forced.

  5. Johnny Roberts says:

    She did NOT write the song, she stole the song from the musician she was living with in L A , at the time & everyone in town knew it ! Ive been in the bussiness for over 50 yrs & was recording at Capitol in the late 60’s & working every country bar in so Cal invluding the Palimino Club, sorry to say other than Fancy” it was her only big hit, Fancy did OK but Billy Joe keept her working for over 2 decades !

  6. Jenny Mills says:

    I believe they were young lovers, Romeo and Juliette come to mind who had a pact to jump off the bridge together, so that their love would be eternal. They were throwing random things off the bridge to test the waters before they both would jump. She backed out of the suicide pact but Billy Joe returned and followed through with the suicide.

  7. Gentry Stafford says:

    The song could not possibly have been recorded on July 10, 1967, as the song was already on regional charts prior to that date…. which also proves that it could not have been a B side, because it was the side that charted regionally first, and weeks ahead of the flip, which had just conveniently been recorded earlier. There is no 7 minute version of the song, if there ever was it is gone now. They searched the vaults in the 1990’s looking for it and found nothing. My guess is stories like this one keep popping up to perpetuate the myth. By now, the story has grown wild because Bobbie refuses to talk about it.

  8. Tom Dupin says:

    While there was (no longer) a Tallahatchie Bridge, and there is a Choctaw Ridge, they are about 1 1/2 hours apart by car. Just the use of cool sounding words.

  9. Mrs.Wigg says:

    Growing up in Mississippi and knowing this song for as long as I can remember. I always thought it was about an interracial couple. They were in a relationship and her daddy made him jump off the bridge. I’m not sure if I just thought this based off the lyrics or I was told this at some point. Either way it’s a song I grew up with and it brings back wonderful memories of sultry southern nights sitting around on the porch in Mississippi

    • Sheryl says:

      Most likely not interracial–they would have not attended the same church, and if Billy Joe was black he would have been relegated to the balcony at the “picture show” and the white kids seated below. That’s just how it was in ’50s-’60’s Mississippi.

  10. Michele says:

    I think they threw his draft card off the bridge and then he committed suicide so he didn’t have to go to Vietnam

  11. Stylz says:

    Wasn’t she married time Jim Stafford for a time?

  12. Sonja says:

    So many thoughts and theories going on but it’s really not that complicated. Anybody that grew up in the rural South in the 30’s and 40’s had it rough–very rural existence . No electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing. Farming, picking cotton, baling hay, planting crops, etc were the ONLY way to feed the family. Life was a matter of fact rather than speculating and “getting in touch with yourself”–no time for that. There were crops to harvest and mouths to feed…It’s that simple. You simply put one foot in front of the other and kept trudging forward. No fancy or trendy theory

  13. Tracy Reynolds says:

    Capitol Records needs to release the full length seven minute version. Will it answer the question, or will it ask even more?

  14. B C says:

    I don’t know what they threw off the bridge. But my guess is a miscarried baby that they were starting to build their lives together around. I know at that age it might be considered a small thing but broken dreams can be devastating.
    I love how she continues to throw flowers off the bridge for Billy Joe.

    • Jeff Donnell says:

      I feel the same as you.They may have been interracial which would add to the necessity of getting rid of the unborn fetus before the town found out they were together.
      Just my .02

  15. opus says:

    she lived in fayette county Tn for years and raised horses.

  16. Liam Mac Giolla Claoin says:

    I have been haunted by this song since I first heard it maybe 45 years ago..I loved it then..and I love it now. However..now that many clergymen in the wider world have been discovered to be queer..as in gay..perhaps Billie Joe fell foul of him and decided to end his life. I think that’s the neatest explanation.

  17. Donna L. Cook says:

    I love the movie, Benson and Bobbie Gentry! Always have, always will. Might be time for the truth or not.

  18. Ronnie says:

    The ode is a timeless ballad and one likely to be of deep significance to bobbie gentry herself. She’s entitled to her privacy – let’s leave her be and honor her musical gift to us all. Thanks Bobbie – still lovin’ it.

  19. Nita says:

    When that song came out, we were all trying to solve the mystery. Yes, it was a baby. He jumped off the bridge from heartache over losing the baby, over killing the baby, (over rejection from the girlfriend never occurred to me). Bobby Gentry may not have had an answer, for her message was to relate callousness over people unconcern over a person’s death and the impersonal relationships in a family. I didn’t know about the movie, but I feel that there was no gay intention in the song. These are my opinions. Maybe Bobbie Gentry was disgusted with humanity for being so superficial that they didn’t get her purpose at all and only wanted to know why he jumped. Solve the mystery and don’t delve into humanity. Shame on us, and I am guilty as well, because I never thought of that back then.

  20. 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

    • paul says:

      the question on our math test for an extra 25 points in 1968 was “What did they throw…” no one got any points! no one EVER will…just as no has yet to figure out, or been told, Who Carly Simon is really singing about in “You’re so Vain”

  21. 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.

  22. 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…

  23. JE says:

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

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. RD says:

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

  27. KC says:

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

  28. 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.

    • Smarticat says:

      Seriously? The movie is a fictional story inspired by the song, which came out in 1967. Inspired by, NOT a biography.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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).

    • Sandy blue says:

      Is this true? Well my theory albeit sad is that they threw a baby off the bridge and Billie Joe was so scared he committed suicide

  33. Lynn says:

    The song does say he in reference to Billie Joe. I do not think it was Emmett Till they threw off the bridge at least not her and Billie. They were lifelong friends sad and the Never had a lick of sense pass the Bisquit’s Please is a way of saying Sad but he jumped life goes on.

  34. Ron Jones says:

    Would anyone have the original seven minute song lyric before it was edited down before the recording?
    Thanks.

  35. Mike Jones says:

    The best female singer i have ever heard. No one can out do the the soulfullness of this classy lady.
    Maybe her and elvis are hiding out together,

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