Happy Birthday, Bobbie Gentry: A Talented Lady Who Crossed a Big Bridge

"It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day…" I sing in the car.  This is about as far as I get before my sweet hubby groans, "Okay, THAT'S enough." He knows what's coming next: the entire five verses of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 Southern gothic hit, "Ode to Billie Joe."  Yep, I've known the lyrics to that moody little song frontwards and backwards since my Daddy first brought home the single in July 1967. 

The simple, bluesy ballad describes a young man named Billie Joe McAllister, who mysteriously jumps off the Tallahatchie Bridge on the Choctaw Ridge one hot summer day. The incident is shrouded in mystery. It seems that earlier in the day, Billie Joe and a female companion were spotted throwing something off the bridge. Speculation about the song's details abounded for months, even years, after its release. Exactly what did the pair throw off the bridge: a baby, a wedding ring, a draft card, drugs?  Why did Billie Joe jump?  Was he caught in a homosexual act? Was he a jilted lover? Had he committed a crime?  The only person who knows for sure is Bobbie Gentry herself. The sultry-voiced artist has the distinction of being one of the first female country singer/guitarists to write and produce her own material.  It was a big bridge to cross in the 1960s, when revolution was in the air, but women's liberation was still a decade away. The beautiful, raven-haired Bobbie turned 68 years old on July 27, and I want to thank her for inspiring me at a young age to write about my life and my observations.

"Ode to Billie Joe" is very visual in its setup: a cotton-belt family sits around the dinner table at the end of a long day.  Mama, who's been cooking all morning, breaks the news about Billie Joe to Papa, Brother, and the narrator. Mundane family talk is interspersed with casual recollections of Billie Joe and bewilderment over his death.  Papa announces that he has five more acres in the lower forty to plow. Mama tells her kin that the nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, will join them for dinner on Sunday. Brother recalls playing childhood pranks with Billie Joe, then asks for another piece of apple pie.  All the while, the narrator remains silent and shaken by the news of Billie Joe, unable to eat Mama's dinner of black-eyed peas and biscuits.  As the years go by, she will frequent the Choctaw Ridge to drop flowers into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge.  I was seven years old when I first heard this song, and I'm still moved by its imagery, its mystery and its haunting sound.  

"Ode to Billie Joe" sold over 3 million copies worldwide. It was a number one hit in the U.S., placed fourth in the Billboard year-end chart of 1967, and received eight Grammy nominations. Bobbie Gentry won Grammy awards for both Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The song also garnered a Grammy for arranger Jimmie Haskell.  Rolling Stone magazine has ranked it #412 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song's popularity endured well into the '70s, when Warner Brothers Studios adapted it into a movie in 1976.

Bobbie Gentry placed 11 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, released half a dozen albums and spent several years as a successful performer on the Las Vegas Strip. She abandoned the music business in the late 1970s and has lived a private life in Los Angeles ever since. Her career was relatively short, but her contributions should never be forgotten. Today let's wish a very happy birthday to Bobbie, a multi-talented woman who scored an unlikely hit -- an eerie little ode that truly stood out among the psychedelic sounds of that crazy Summer of Love.

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Tags: billie, bobbie, gentry, joe, ode, to

Comment by Guy Bourbonnais on July 31, 2012 at 4:18am

This singer and this song are rare gems. We, listeners to her music, have lost so much when she decided to retire for a private life.

Comment by David Kidney on July 31, 2012 at 6:58am

James Dickey wrote the classic novel of survival, Deliverance. You'll recall the importance folk music (and especially a guitar and banjo duet) played in the film. Dickey was an amateur guitar picker himself, and in his followup book Sorties (a collection of journals and essays) he expressed himself clearly and controversially about many subjects. Perhaps the most memorable of these opinions, and the one which had an immediate and long-lasting impact on me, was the following comment. "The debasement of all folk styles that have ever existed in the world comes to a culmination in Bobbie Gentry."  Talk about harsh!

Comment by Guy Bourbonnais on July 31, 2012 at 8:17am

Well, I'm not sure about her being the «culmination» of this «debasement», but we can surely agree that she contributed to a certain debasement of folk styles. Yet, what those this say about her music? Does it mean that her songs, regardless of their style, have no value? Have no beauty within them? I don't think so. When Dylan goes electric, he may turn his back on a certain style, but that says nothing about the value of his new songs.

Comment by Brian Moore on July 31, 2012 at 10:16am

To James Dickey...you know what they say about opinions and assholes. And Deliverance was just so so.

Comment by Al Maginnes on July 31, 2012 at 10:43am

Maybe so, Brian. But James Dickey was a great American poet (and an ok novelist). Read his Poems 1957-67 to see just how good the written word can be.

Comment by Dana Spiardi on July 31, 2012 at 11:13am

Thanks for the great discussion.  I have a strong attachment to artists I discovered at a young age, who inspired me to observe and create.  Bobbie was one of the few female performers who did that for me.  And her music is 1000 times better than any of the Beyonce/Katy Perry crap that passes for music these days.  And, Guy, you're right: Dylan was booed by people who were considered to have "good taste." 

Comment by David Kidney on July 31, 2012 at 11:28am

Here's a link to my review of a Raven re-issue of a couple Bobbie gentry albums...it's where I took the paragraph from that got this discussion rolling...

http://www.greenmanreview.com/cd/cd_gentry_deltasweete.html

Comment by greg f on July 31, 2012 at 1:22pm

Great post, Dana, and a great song.  At that time and now, it's a haunting piece of music, very well written and performed; 'Southern gothic' is a perfectly appropriate and not derogatory way to label it, if labels are required (in which case 'Faulknerian', 'Wolfean' or 'O'Neilist' might be deployed).  

Not sure why Mr. Dickey's cantankerousness had to become part of this thread, but the song is far less a debasement of folk music than the 'Deliverance' theme (which is to folk/bluegrass what 'Stairway to Heaven' is to rock, to the chagrin of music store salesmen everywhere); far less debasing than many other contributions to folk at that time (e.g., Peter, Paul & Mary's 'Lemon Tree,' 'I Dig Rock 'n Roll Music,' etc. & yecchh); and everlastingly less debasing to our culture than Mr. Dickey's tragically most-lasting contribution to it, as issued during the 'Deliverance' "love scene" to poor, hapless Ned Beatty: "I wantchoo to squeal like a pig!"   

(True, that line wasn't in the book, but Mr. Dickey his-own-self added it on the set during filming; you can look it up.)

So, rock on, Bobbie Jo, and happy birthday!

Comment by Al Maginnes on July 31, 2012 at 2:14pm

I remember this song scaring the pure bejesus out of me when I was a kid. Being an imaginative young'un I had all sorts of ideas about what they threw off the bridge and why. I still do...

Comment by Jazz Lunatique on July 31, 2012 at 2:28pm

Such a beautiful song that still keeps me wondering even now.  The Oxford American music issue had a great essay about a while back.  And I keep trying to get the Ponderosa Stomp to get Bobbie G. to play.  Come back Bobbie Gentry!  Come back.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.