Bobby Gentry – Ode To Billie Joe

12th October 2022 · 1960s, 1967, Country, Music

If anyone were to tell me this is the greatest single song of all time, I would not dare to disagree. It’s flawless – perfect tune, perfect lyric, perfect voice, perfect arrangement – and filled with such emotion that it makes me cry almost every time I hear it.

There’s something so ineffably sad about the words of Gentry’s Southern Gothic story set on a Delta farm, like the one she grew up on in Chickasaw Country, Mississippi, without electricity or plumbing.

The lyrics unfold in precisely composed rhyming couplets as the narrator sits down to a family meal, where her mother casually breaks the news that her daughter’s friend Billie Joe McAllister has died, jumping into the Tallahatchie River near Choctaw Ridge.

It’s not just the underplayed revelation of his suicide, nor the unresolved mystery – which somehow seems to implicate the narrator – but her parents’ casual indifference to the news.

They make offhand comments in between the more important business of eating their lunch: “Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas / Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits please” and “Wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night? / I’ll have another piece of apple pie, it don’t seem right.”

The postscript, in a final verse set a year later, is devastatingly poignant (and scarily topical): “There was a virus goin’ round; papa caught it and he died last spring / And now mama doesn’t seem to want to 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.”

Incredibly, it’s one of those great songs that was originally intended only as a B-side. Initially hoping to sell her songs to other artists to record, Gentry sang on the demo only because she couldn’t afford to hire a professional singer.

It was not this song that earned her her first record deal, with Capitol Records back in 1967, but one called Mississippi Delta, which was planned to be her first single.

Ode To Billie Joe – a sparse recording with Gentry accompanying herself on a simply strummed acoustic guitar – was to be the flip side. But after hearing the string arrangement that was dubbed on later, her label changed their minds.

Released in July 1967, it spent four weeks at No.1 in America , and reached a more modest No.13 in the UK and appeared on her debut album, inspired by Bobby’s recollections of growing up in poverty.

Raised by her grandparents, Roberta Streeter’s musical life began when she was seven, when her grandmother traded a dairy cow for a neighbour’s piano.

At 15 she moved to California to live with her mother. They formed a duo, with Bobbie adopting the stage name Ruby Gentry from a favourite film and going on to study philosophy at UCLA, and music at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She retired in 1982.