Little Bits of History

Ode to Billie Joe

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 3, 2011

Cover of Bobbie Gentry's debut album

June 3, 1953: Billy Joe MacAllister jumps off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The song, “Ode to Billy Joe,” was written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry and ranked # 412 by Rolling Stone in their list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song itself was released in July of 1967. The song has always been ambiguous in nature and Bobbie Gentry has been quoted as saying she has “no idea” why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge.

“Ode to Billy Joe” tells the story of a Mississippi farming family eating lunch while discussing the suicide earlier in the day of their friend, Billy Joe. No one, except the narrator, seems a bit concerned by the death. There is also mention of something being thrown off the bridge previously, and the listeners are again not given a clear idea of what it could have been. A movie was made about the song, purporting to answer the questions. They weren’t the original author’s answers, however.

The original recording of the song was only Gentry’s smoky vocals backed solely by her playing the guitar. It was to be the B side of her first release but proved to be far more popular. The original song was a seven minute version telling more of the story than we are left with today. It was shortened and the singing was backed with a string orchestra. The song remained mysterious with the extra verses cut, and also was the proper length for radio play.

Bobbie Gentry (nee Roberta Streeter) is a Mississippi native raised on a farm in Chickasaw County, the location of the original Tallahatchie Bridge which collapsed in 1972. Gentry not only wrote, but produced her own music. She went on to produce her own Las Vegas show. She toured at home and abroad. She married three times and had one son. Her last album was released in 2002. Her most famous song garnered eight Grammy nominations with three wins for her and one win for arranger Jimmie Haskell.

“It was the third of June, / another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton / and my brother was balin’ hay.” (opening lines of “Ode to Billy Joe”)

“Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes.”

“’Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for — equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.”

“I originally produced ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ and most of my other records, but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.” – all from Bobbie Gentry

Also on this day:
No Joy in Mudville – In 1888, Thayer’s poem is first published.
Whoops – In 1969, two ships collide during a sea exercise.

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