Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry (1967)


“Money, Mississippi, has a population of about 100. The settlement is famous for two things. One is real: in 1955, a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, was lynched, a murder referred to in songs by The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan. The other is fictional: Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. An atmospheric production that mixed country music with funky R&B, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is an enigma. Its storyline is clear enough; some of the details are not. Billie Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money into the river below and, over dinner, a family offer opinions about their deceased acquaintance. Gentry sings of apple pie, cutting cotton, a prank involving frogs and, eventually, the death of the family’s father from a virus. Gradually the closeness of the song’s narrator to Billie Joe becomes apparent; she and Billie had been seen throwing something off the bridge on the day before he leapt to his death. Exactly what, is left to the listener’s imagination. At the end of the song, the narrator whiles away time throwing something else from the bridge: flowers, a lament to Billie Joe, her lost, unspoken love. ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ had started as an eight-minute acoustic epic, scheduled as the B-side of Gentry’s debut single before Capitol Records realised its potential. The song had almost half its length excised, and Jimmie Haskell’s edgy, swooping strings did nothing to impinge on the understated atmosphere of Gentry’s song. Its juxtaposition of banalities against profound loss struck a chord in the America of 1967, which was keeping up appearances while fighting in Vietnam, watching its leaders being assassinated, and coping with change wrought by the civil rights movement. It was the US’s third biggest-selling single of the year. …”
FT – The Life of a Song: ‘Ode to Billie Joe’
W – Ode to Billie Joe
Rolling Stone: The Secret Life of Bobbie Gentry, Pioneering Artist Behind ‘Ode to Billie Joe’
YouTube: Ode to Billie Joe

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