Bobbie Gentry’s Mystifying Mississippi Tour

A couple nights ago I celebrated the return from the dead of my car tape player by listening to a Personics mix tape, “Stalking the Red Zone,” I created for Mrs. QC prior to the birth in 1991 of our oldest son. (The “Red Zone” was a term we used to describe the phase of pregnancy beginning with week 38.)

Having slapped the tape into the player without looking at the song list, I was taken by surprise by the sound of “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry.

Bobby Gentry - Ode to Billie Joe

This song was a huge hit — #1 on the Billboard pop chart for four weeks with three million copies sold — in the summer of 1967, the second of my many years as a fan of Top 40 radio. I was 10 at the time.

Gentry’s lyrics tell the story of a family’s dinner table discussion of the suicide of Billie Joe MacAllister, a local teenage boy, from the perspective of the family’s teenage girl.

Here’s a video of Gentry performing “Ode to Billie Joe.” This performance is different than the hit record version — but not much. Hey, at least she’s not lip-syncing.

“Ode to Billie Joe” works for me on many levels:

  • It’s a great period piece — a slice of life in rural Mississippi in the ’60s — bringing to mind dust, poverty, and unrelenting heat, as in one of my favorite flicks, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, also set in Mississippi (although in the Depression era).
  • The lyrics —and Bobbie’s matter-of-fact delivery — are haunting. Furthermore, the lyrics are completely intelligible and therefore easy to focus on.
  • The music adds to the haunting effect, with heavy string flourishes at dramatic points in the narrative over the simple but catchy acoustic guitar lick that repeats throughout.
  • The story presents a mystery.

Ah, the mystery! What’s the expression — everybody loves a mystery?

“Ode to Billie Joe” leaves the listener wondering why Billie Joe committed suicide, what the singer and Billie Joe threw off the bridge, and how the two events and two people related. It’s fun to speculate. You’ll find lots of speculation in the comments on the YouTube video.

The mystery is summarized pretty nicely in “The Mystery of Ode to Billie Joe” (dig the stark, pre-blog era design of the page). As “J.J.”, the writer of the piece points out, the song spawned a 1976 movie, starring Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor of Jeremy fame, and directed by Max Baer, Jr. (Jethro Bodine from The Beverly Hillbillies), that took artistic liberty in its presentation of the story by introducing a lot of information that is not even hinted at in the song lyrics. (I’ve not seen Ode to Billie Joe and don’t wish to. Jeremy, on the other hand, I’d like to see again.)

My take on the mystery? I’ll go with the miscarriage theory:

  • The singer miscarried an unplanned pregnancy. Billie Joe was the father.
  • They threw the aborted fetal tissue off the bridge.
  • Soon after that Billie Joe was so overcome by grief he committed suicide.

Bleech! On second thought, maybe not. I think the theory that the couple is interracial has merit. But which one is black?

I was surprised to find on such a large number of cover versions of “Ode to Billie Joe”. Artists of note include

  • Chet Atkins
  • Booker T. & the MGs.
  • Ray Charles
  • The Detroit Emeralds (MP3 audio file is linked here)
  • The Fifth Dimension
  • King Curtis
  • Ramsey Lewis
  • Ellen McIlwaine
  • The Mighty Flea (MP3 audio file is linked here)
  • Sinéad O’Connor
  • Jaco Pastorius
  • Diana Ross & the Supremes
  • Tom Scott & the L.A. Express
  • Joe Tex
  • Ike & Tina Turner
  • Jackie Wilson
  • Nancy Wilson
  • Tammy Wynette

I suspect several of these are instrumentals. The Mighty Flea’s version definitely is. It’s notable because the lead is a trombone.

I also found a cool mashup: Odes to Billie Joe. Mashmeister Wayne & Wax writes — in netfully hip lowercase:

… the mashup has the wonderful effect of making it sound like bobby [sic] gentry is being accompanied by a double-quartet comprising tommy mccook’s and lou donaldson’s late 60s groups. their juxtaposition transforms a sparse, spooky country lament into an otherworldly torch song. saxophones weave around the voice and each other, rocksteady pulls against soul jazz funk, while the singer lags behind and darts ahead of her able accompanists.

a brief technical note: i’ve pitched down gentry’s voice so that she blends better with her bands. also, despite the constant presence of some great drumming in both “rhythm tracks,” i couldn’t resist imposing another layer consisting of the intro break from donaldson’s version – the same break that you’ve heard in countless hip-hop beats.

It’s worth a listen.

(Slipping into Bill Murray’s Saturday Night Live persona) Now get outta here, Bobbie, you knucklehead! Your lime green mini-dress clashes with my green paint.

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8 comments so far

  1. Kani on

    Many years later, that song still lingers on the brain, and it elicits memories of a hot childhood summer, and the adults trying to figure out the lyrics (in what seemed to be an interminable conversation.) Funny, but for many years I have noted the third of June on the calendar and thought of the song.

  2. QC on

    Good thoughts — thanks.

    Hey I just paused the video on the first frame, and I believe I see a Smothers brother! See what you think.

  3. funky16corners on

    I just happened to be doing routine link maintenance last night which is why the link disappeared. I just put it back up again so that your readers could check out the version of “ode…” by the Mighty Flea.
    Larry (Funky16Corners)

  4. QC on

    @Larry (Funky16Corners):

    Thanks for restoring that link. I’ve edited the post.

    Brace your server for the onslaught of my 6 readers 😉

  5. Kani on

    I remember Jeremy !! It was a sweet coming of age film, with the tagline “It’s about the first time you fell in love.” My friend Julee and I saw it, and we agreed that Jeremy (Robby Benson) reminded us of a certain funny, cute, and kind of shy and quiet boy – a good friend of ours. They both had straight black hair and liked horseraces, too. Go figure.

    QC, I think you’re right about that Smothers Brother in the first frame.

  6. QC on

    Hmm. Read this comment about Jeremy by JW Lamb on IMDB (you may need to register) It resonates with me … and I had straight black hair and liked horse racing as a teen.

  7. Sketch on

    From childhood to adulthood this song remains very haunting. The backround music, her straightforward approach and more importantly, the way she lowers her voice when she sings “jumped off the talahatchi(spell error?) bridge.”

    Untill this night, I never saw what Bobbie Gentry looked like. The song was so haunting, that I was thrown to have discovered she was a gorgeous woman!

  8. QC on

    Thanks for the comment.

    Yep, Bobbie is gorgeous. I had forgotten what she looked like before I wrote the post.

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