Ode to Billie Joe

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"Ode to Billie Joe"
Odetobillyjoe.jpg
Single by Bobbie Gentry
from the album Ode to Billie Joe
B-side "Mississippi Delta"
Released July 1967
Format 7-inch 45 rpm record
Recorded July 10, 1967
Studio Capitol Studio C, Hollywood, California
Genre Blues
Length 4:15
Label Capitol
Songwriter(s) Bobbie Gentry
Producer(s) Kelly Gordon
Bobbie Gentry singles chronology
"Requiem for Love"
(1963)
"Ode to Billie Joe"
(1967)
"I Saw an Angel Die"
(1967)
"Requiem for Love"
(1963)
"Ode to Billie Joe"
(1967)
"I Saw an Angel Die"
(1967)
Audio sample

"Ode to Billie Joe" is a 1967 song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in late July, was a number-one hit in the United States, and became a big international seller. Billboard ranked the record as the No. 3 song for 1967 (the other two were #2 "The Letter" by the Box Tops and #1 "To Sir With Love" by Lulu).[1] The song is ranked #412 on Rolling Stone's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry and one win for arranger Jimmie Haskell.[2]

Plot[edit]

The song is a first-person narrative that reveals a Southern Gothic tale in its verses by including the dialog of the narrator's family at dinnertime on the day that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Throughout the song, the suicide and other tragedies are contrasted against the banality of everyday routine and polite conversation. The quick passage of events and deaths in just a year's time remind the listeners how quickly things can change.

The song begins with the narrator, her brother and her father returning, after agricultural morning chores, to the family house for dinner (on June 3). 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," apparently to his death.

At the dinner table, the narrator's father is unsurprised at the news and says, "Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o' sense; pass the biscuits, please" and mentions that there are "five more acres in the lower forty I got to plow." Although her brother seems to be somewhat taken aback ("I saw him at the sawmill yesterday ... And now you tell me Billie Joe has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"), he's not shocked enough to forgo a second piece of pie. The brother recalls that while he was with his friends Tom and Billie Joe, they had put a frog down the narrator's back at the Carroll County picture show (movie theater), and that he had seen her and Billie Joe together last Sunday speaking after church. Late in the song, Mama questions the narrator's complete change of mood ("Child, what's happened to your appetite? I been cookin' all mornin' and you haven't touched a single bite") and then recalls a visit earlier that morning by Brother Taylor, the local preacher, who mentioned that he had seen Billie Joe and a girl who looked very much like the narrator herself and they were "throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Brother Taylor very likely served as a communication "link" or gossip for families in this 1950s rural community. Mama's referring to him as "that nice, young Preacher" whom she invited to Sunday's dinner may suggest that Mama had matchmaking for her daughter and the young preacher in mind.

In the song's final verse, a year has passed, during which the narrator's brother has married Becky Thompson, and moved away ("bought a store in Tupelo"). Also, her father died from an unspecified viral infection, which has left her mother despondent. ("And now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything".) Interestingly, the narrator speaks of her brother's marriage before talking of her father's death. The narrator herself now visits Choctaw Ridge often, picking flowers there to drop from the Tallahatchie Bridge into the murky waters flowing beneath.

Questions arose among the 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, and Gentry said in a November 1967 interview that it was the question most asked of her by everyone she met. She named flowers, an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted baby as the most often guessed items. Although she knew definitely 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."[3]

When Herman Raucher met Gentry in preparation for writing a novel and screenplay based on the song, she confessed that she had no idea why Billie Joe killed himself.[4] Gentry has, however, commented on the song, saying that its real theme was indifference:[5]

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.

The bridge mentioned in this song collapsed in June 1972.[6] It crossed the Tallahatchie River at Money, about ten miles (16 km) north of Greenwood, Mississippi, and has since been replaced. The November 10, 1967, issue of Life Magazine contained a photo of Gentry crossing the original bridge.

In this photograph from the November 10, 1967 issue of Life magazine, Bobbie Gentry crosses the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi. The bridge collapsed in June 1972.[6]

Recording[edit]

"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, had eleven verses lasting seven minutes, telling more of Billie Joe's story. The executives realized that this song was a better option for a single, so they cut the length by almost half and re-recorded it with a string orchestra. The shorter version left more of the story to the listener's imagination, and made the single more suitable for radio airplay.[7][8] 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.[citation needed]

Adaptations[edit]

The song's popularity proved so enduring that in 1976, nine years after its release, Warner Bros. commissioned author Herman Raucher to adapt it into a novel and screenplay, Ode to Billy Joe. The poster's tagline, which treats the film as being based on a true story and even gives a date of death for Billy (June 3, 1953), led many to believe that the song was based on actual events.[4] 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 him off the bridge symbolizes throwing away her childhood, becoming a self-contained adult.

Billy Joe's story is analyzed in Professor John Howard's history of gay Mississippi entitled Men Like That: A Queer Southern History as an archetype of what Howard calls the "gay suicide myth".

Cultural impact[edit]

Soon after the song's chart success, the Tallahatchie Bridge saw an increase in those willing to jump off of it. Since the bridge height is only 20 feet (6 m), death or injury was unlikely. To curb the trend, the Leflore County Board enacted a law fining jumpers $100. [9]

Translations[edit]

In 1967 American/French singer-songwriter Joe Dassin had much success with a French translation of the song titled "Marie-Jeanne", that tells exactly the same story almost word for word, only with the characters 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
Choctaw Ridge Bourg-les-Essonnes
Brother Taylor unnamed: just "the sister of that young priest"
Tom Le Grand Nicolas
Becky Thompson unnamed
Tupelo unnamed

Besides the change in character names and locations, there are also obvious changes to various environments like the food, the crops, etc. For example, instead of "Choppin' cotton", the narrator took care of the vineyards. The setting is a fictitious small town in southwest France. The River Garonne, however, is real.

In 1967, a Swedish translation by Olle Adolphson titled "Jon Andreas visa" was recorded by Siw Malmkvist.[10] It is faithful to the story in "Ode to Billie Joe", but has changed the setting to rural Sweden. The name of Billie Joe has been changed to the Swedish name Jon Andreas.

A German translation titled "Billy Joe McAllister" was released in 1978 by Wencke Myhre.

Chart performance[edit]

Other versions[edit]

A number of jazz versions have been recorded, including Willis Jackson, Howard Roberts, Cal Tjader, Mel Brown, Jimmy Smith, Buddy Rich, King Curtis, Jaco Pastorius, Dave Bartholomew, and Jaki Byard.[15]. In a 1967 appearance on Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald sang one full verse of the song.

Lou Donaldson released a version of the song on his 1967 album Mr. Shing-A-Ling on Blue Note Records.

The Detroit Emeralds released a version of the song as the B-side to their 1968 single, "Shades Down".[16]

A version of the song appears on Tammy Wynette's 1968 album Take Me to Your World / I Don't Wanna Play House, and later on her 1970 Greatest Hits album.

In 1985, the new wave band Torch Song released a version of the song on I.R.S. Records.

Danish rock band Sort Sol released a version of the song on their 1987 album Everything That Rises Must Converge

Sinéad O'Connor released a version of this song in 1995.[17]

Melinda Schneider and Beccy Cole covered the song on their album Great Women of Country (2014).

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." [18]

In 2017, Lydia Lunch & Cypress Grove covered the song on their album Under The Covers.[19]

Paula Cole recorded a version on her 2017 Ballads album.

Parodies and adaptations[edit]

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.[20] 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'".[21]

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.[22]

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[23], 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.[24]

Bibliography[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Suicide of Tyler Clementi - parallel story of young homosexual college student who committed suicide jumping off a bridge, following a session webcam privacy violation reveal.
  • Emmett Till was brutally murdered and tossed over the bridge like "some object", with Billy Joe sounding like "Jim Crow".

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Number One Song of the Year: 1946-2014". Bob Borst's Home of Pop Culture. 
  2. ^ [1][dead link]
  3. ^ An Actress with a Big Secret, Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1967, p. 42. Page found 2011-07-30.
  4. ^ a b Studer, Wayne (1994). Rock on The Wild Side: gay male images in popular music of the rock era. Leyland Publications. pp. 97–98. 
  5. ^ "Biography". Ode to Bobbie Gentry. Archived from the original on October 26, 2009. 
  6. ^ a b Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 239. CN 5585. 
  7. ^ Bobbie Gentry artist biography at CountryPolitan.com, now offline. Archived version.
  8. ^ 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 eleven verses, but deleted six because a record producer thought the song was too long.
  9. ^ "Jumpers Get Fines". Daily Kent Stater. Kent. 9 January 1969. Retrieved 10 November 2014. 
  10. ^ "Jon Andreas visa" (in Swedish). Svensk mediedatabas. October 1967. Retrieved April 17, 2012. 
  11. ^ "flavour of new zealand - search listener". Flavourofnz.co.nz. Retrieved 2016-10-01. 
  12. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 225. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  13. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 2016-10-01. 
  14. ^ "Top 100 Hits of 1967/Top 100 Songs of 1967". Musicoutfitters.com. Retrieved 2017-04-05. 
  15. ^ "'Ode To Billie Joe' Was A Surprise Hit That Prompted Dozens Of Jazz Versions". 2017-07-14. 
  16. ^ "Detroit Emeralds - Shades Down / Ode To Billy Joe - Ric-Tic - USA - RT-138". 45cat.com. Retrieved 2016-10-01. 
  17. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn6L9gd8ch8
  18. ^ Lorrie Morgan - Looking Back...and Looking Forward Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  19. ^ "Under The Covers CD | Rustblade – Label and Distribution". Rustblade. Retrieved 2017-06-23. 
  20. ^ Dylan, Bob (1975). "Bob Dylan: "Clothesline"". The Basement Tapes. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2007. 
  21. ^ Greil Marcus (1997). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt. p. 286. ISBN 9780805033939. 
  22. ^ "Ode to Billy Joel". madmusic.com. Retrieved February 20, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Ode to Bobbie Gentry". The American Spectator. Retrieved July 27, 2017. 
  24. ^ "New '33 1/3' book explores life of mysterious chanteuse Bobbie Gentry". L.A. Times. Retrieved July 27, 2017. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles
Billboard Hot 100 number one single
August 26 – September 16, 1967
Succeeded by
"The Letter" by Box Tops