Ode to Billie Joe
|"Ode to Billie Joe"|
|Single by Bobbie Gentry|
|from the album Ode to Billie Joe|
|Released||July 10, 1967|
|Format||7-inch 45 rpm record|
|Studio||Capitol Studio C, Hollywood, California|
|Producer(s)||Kelly Gordon, Bobby Paris|
|Bobbie Gentry singles chronology|
"Ode to Billie Joe" is a song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released on July 10, 1967, was a number-one hit in the US within three weeks of release and a big international seller. Billboard ranked the record as the No. 3 song of the year. The recording remained on the Billboard chart for 20 weeks and was the Number 1 song for four weeks.
It generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry and one for arranger Jimmie Haskell. "Ode to Billie Joe" has since made Rolling Stone's lists of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" and the "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time" and Pitchfork's "200 Best Songs of the 1960s".
The song takes the form of a first-person narrative performed over sparse acoustic accompaniment, though with strings in the background. It tells of a rural Mississippi family's reaction to the news of the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter (and narrator) is connected. Hearsay around the "Tallahatchie Bridge" forms the narrative and musical hook. The song concludes with the demise of the father and the lingering, singular effects of the two deaths on the family. According to Gentry, the song is about indifference and unshared grief.
Gentry's song takes the form of first-person narrative by the young daughter of a Mississippi Delta family. It offers fragments of the dinnertime conversation on the day that a local boy, and acquaintance of the narrator, jumped to his death from a nearby bridge, the account interspersed between everyday, polite, mealtime conversation. The song's final verse conveys the passage of events over the following year.
The song begins on June 3 with the narrator, her brother and her father returning from farming chores to the family house for dinner. After cautioning them about tracking in dirt, Mama says that she "got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge" that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge". At the dinner table, the father seems unmoved, commenting, "Billie Joe never had a lick o' sense", before asking for the biscuits and adding that there's "five more acres in the lower forty, I've got to plow." Her brother is intrigued ("I saw him at the sawmill yesterday ... And now you tell me Billie Joe has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"), but not enough to be distracted from the midday victuals. He recalls a prank that he, "Tom", and Billie Joe played on the narrator.
The only person affected is the narrator; one reviewer commented on "the narrator’s family’s emotional distance, impassive and unmoved by Billie Joe’s death". Her mother notices her change of mood following the news ("Child, what's happened to your appetite? I've been cookin' all mornin' and you haven't touched a single bite"). The mother shares the news that a local preacher visited earlier and, as an aside, adds that he mentioned seeing someone looking much like the narrator and Billie Joe "throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge". In the song's final verse, a year has passed. The narrator's brother has married Becky Thompson and has moved to another town ("bought a store in Tupelo"). The father died from a viral infection and the mother is despondent ("Mama doesn't seem to want to do much of anything"). The narrator likewise remains privately affected: she often visits Choctaw Ridge collecting flowers to "drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge".
Questions arose among listeners: what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Speculation ran rampant after the song hit the airwaves. Gentry said in a November 1967 interview that it was the question most asked of her by everyone she met. She said that the most named items were flowers, an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted baby. Although she knew what the item was, she would not reveal it, saying only "Suppose it was a wedding ring."
"It's in there for two reasons," she said. "First, it locks up a definite relationship between Billie Joe and the girl telling the story, the girl at the table. Second, the fact that Billie Joe was seen throwing something off the bridge – no matter what it was – provides a possible motivation as to why he jumped off the bridge the next day."
When Herman Raucher met Gentry in preparation for writing a novel and screenplay based on the song, she said that she had no idea why Billie Joe killed himself. Gentry has, however, commented elsewhere on the song, saying that it is about indifference: the "unconscious cruelty" of the family when discussing the reported suicide.
Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people's reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.
A commentary published in 2017 in a British newspaper made this comment: "Fifty years on we’re no wiser as to why Billie Joe did what he did and in the context of the song and Gentry’s intentions, that’s just as it should be".
The bridge mentioned in this song collapsed in June 1972. It crossed the Tallahatchie River at Money, about ten miles (16 km) north of Greenwood, Mississippi, and has since been rebuilt. The November 10, 1967, issue of Life magazine contained a photo of Gentry crossing the original bridge.
"Ode to Billie Joe" was originally intended as the B-side of Gentry's first single recording, a blues number called "Mississippi Delta", on Capitol Records. The original recording, with no other musicians backing Gentry's guitar according to some reports, had eleven verses lasting eight minutes, telling more of Billie Joe's story. The executives realized that this song would work best as a single, so they cut the length by almost half and added background music, strings, two cellos and four violins, according to Gentry.
The only surviving draft of the seven-minute version of "Ode to Billie Joe", which consists of two handwritten pages, is located in the archive of the University of Mississippi. Gentry donated the draft to the University's Faulkner room in 1973. In addition to the iconic lyrics that made the final cut, the unused lyrics may showcase Bobbie Gentry's mindset and possible answer to mystery of what was thrown from the bridge; as well as the relationship of the narrator to Billie Joe. The shorter version left more of the story to the listener's imagination, and made the single more suitable for radio airplay. In an interview with Bob Harris broadcast by BBC Radio 2 in Bob Harris Country on April 16, 2009, singer Rachel Harrington claimed that Gentry originally wrote 11 verses, but deleted six because a record producer thought the song was too long. The song is noted for its long descending scale by the strings at the conclusion, suggesting the flowers falling after being dropped off the Tallahatchie Bridge and ending up in the river water below.
In a later interview Gentry took full credit for the success of the record. "Did you know that I took "Ode to Billie Joe" to Capitol, sold it, and produced the album myself? It wasn’t easy. It's difficult when a woman is attractive; beauty is supposed to negate intelligence – which is ridiculous. Certainly there are no women executives and producers to speak of in the record business."
The song's popularity proved so enduring that in 1976, nine years after its release, Warner Bros. commissioned author Herman Raucher to expand and adapt the story as a novel and screenplay, Ode to Billy Joe. The poster's tagline, which treats the film as being based on a true story and gives a date of death for Billy (June 3, 1953), led many to believe that the song was based on actual events. In Raucher's novel and screenplay, Billy Joe kills himself after a drunken homosexual experience, and the object thrown from the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll. The film was released in 1976, directed and produced by Max Baer, Jr, and starring Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor. Only the first, second, and fifth verses were sung by Bobbie Gentry in the film, omitting the third and fourth verses.
In the novel, the ragdoll is the central character's confidant and advisor. Tossing it off the bridge symbolizes throwing away her childhood and innocence, becoming a self-contained adult.
Soon after the song's chart success, the Tallahatchie Bridge was visited by more individuals who wanted to jump off it. Since the bridge height was only 20 feet (6 m), death or injury was unlikely. To curb the trend, the Leflore County Board enacted a law fining jumpers $100.
In 1967 American/French singer-songwriter Joe Dassin had much success with a French translation of the song titled "Marie-Jeanne". It tells exactly the same story nearly word for word, but the lead characters are reversed. The narrator is one of the sons of the household, and the character who committed suicide is a girl named Marie-Jeanne Guillaume.
A quick overview of the translated names and places:
|Bobbie Gentry||Joe Dassin|
|June 3||June 4|
|Billie Joe McAllister||Marie-Jeanne Guillaume|
|Tallahatchie Bridge||Pont de la Garonne|
|Brother Taylor||unnamed: just "the sister of that young priest"|
|Tom||Le Grand Nicolas|
Besides the change in character names and locations, the translator adapted mentions of food and crops to be associated with rural France. For instance, the narrator worked in a vineyard. The setting is a fictitious small town in southwest France. The River Garonne is real.
In 1967, a Swedish translation by Olle Adolphson titled "Jon Andreas visa" was recorded by Siw Malmkvist. It is faithful to the story in "Ode to Billie Joe", but has changed the setting to rural Sweden. The name of Billie Joe was changed to the Swedish name Jon Andreas.
A German translation titled "Billy Joe McAllister" was released in 1978 by Wencke Myhre.
A number of jazz versions have been recorded, including Willis Jackson, Howard Roberts, Cal Tjader, Mel Brown, Jimmy Smith, Buddy Rich, King Curtis, Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders (on a big-band jazz album called High and Ridin'), Jaco Pastorius, Dave Bartholomew, Patricia Barber and Jaki Byard. In a 1967 appearance on Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald sang one full verse of the song. Nancy Wilson covered the song on her 1967 album Welcome to My Love.
The British Rock Band, "Life n Soul" released "Ode to Billy Joe"on Decca, as their first single in 1967. It got to number 17 in the British Top Twenty Charts before Bobbie Gentry's original version overtook it.
The song was covered by Margret Roadknight, on her 1980 album Out of Fashion ... Not out of Style.
Though the song was not included on her 2014 album "The River and The Thread," Rosanne Cash and husband/producer John Leventhal frequently performed the song live on the tour promoting that album, as the album cover featured a photo of Roseanne (taken by Leventhal) standing atop the Tallahatchie Bridge looking at the Tallahatchie River.
Lorrie Morgan covered the song at a slower pace for her 2016 album Letting Go ... Slow. Morgan says of recording the song with producer Richard Landis, "Richard purposely slowed the record down to make the musical passages through there really feel kind of spooky and eerie. Everything just felt so swampy and scary. Everybody has their own interpretation of that song and just what they threw off of the Tallahatchie Bridge." 
Paula Cole recorded a version on her 2017 Ballads album.
Kathy Mattea covered the song on her 2018 Pretty Bird album.
Parodies and adaptations
Bob Dylan's "Clothes Line Saga" (recorded in 1967; released on the 1975 album The Basement Tapes) is a parody of the song. It mimics the conversational style of "Ode to Billie Joe" with lyrics concentrating on routine household chores. The shocking event buried in all the mundane details is the revelation that "The Vice-President's gone mad!". Dylan's song was originally titled "Answer to 'Ode'".
A comedy group named "Slap Happy" recorded "Ode to Billy Joel" in the 1980s, which was featured on the Dr. Demento show. In this version, the singer is alleged to have jumped from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Jill Sobule's album California Years features "Where is Bobbie Gentry?" which uses the same melody in a lyrical sequel. The narrator, seeking the reclusive Gentry, claims to be the abandoned lovechild of Gentry and Billie Joe, i.e., the object thrown off of the bridge. Sobule would later write the introduction to a book on Gentry.
The song was also parodied on a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live, in which Kristen Wiig and host Paul Rudd, playing married singer-songwriters Ton and Tonya Peoples, perform a tedious variation titled "Ode to Tracking Number".
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