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"
ReleasedJuly 10, 1967
Format7-inch 45 rpm record
RecordedMarch 1967
StudioCapitol Studio C, Hollywood, California
GenreBlues
Length4:15
LabelCapitol
Songwriter(s)Bobbie Gentry
Producer(s)Kelly Gordon
Bobbie Gentry singles chronology
"Stranger in the Mirror"
(1966)
"Ode to Billie Joe"
(1967)
"I Saw an Angel Die"
(1967)
Audio sample

"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 and a big international seller. Billboard ranked the record as the No. 3 song of the year.[1] It generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry and one for arranger Jimmie Haskell.[2] "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".[3][4]

The song takes the form of a first-person narrative performed over sparse acoustic accompaniment. 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.[5]

Narrative[edit]

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 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.[6] 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" left 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: 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".

Composer's view[edit]

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 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 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."[7]

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.[8] Gentry has, however, commented elsewhere on the song, saying that it is about indifference:[9]

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 supposedly mentioned in this song collapsed in June 1972.[10] 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.

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.[10]

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 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.[11] Gentry donated the draft to the University’s Faulkner room in 1973.[12] 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.[13] 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.[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 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.[8] 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, 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 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.[14]

Translations[edit]

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
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, 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.[15] 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.

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, Patricia Barber and Jaki Byard.[24] 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 version overtook it.

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".[25]

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.

The song was covered by Margret Roadknight, on her 1980 album Out of Fashion... Not out of Style.

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.[26]

Patty Smyth covered the song on the Tom Scott (musician) and the L. A. Express album "Smoking' Section" (1999).

Melinda Schneider and Beccy Cole covered the song on their album Great Women of Country (2014). The British Rock Band, "Life n Soul" Released "Ode to Billy Joe" as their first single in 1967.

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." [27]

In 2017, Lydia Lunch & Cypress Grove covered the song on their album Under The Covers.[28]

Paula Cole recorded a version on her 2017 Ballads album.

Kathy Mattea covered the song on her 2018 Pretty Bird 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.[29] 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'".[30]

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.[31]

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,[32] 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.[33]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Murtha, Tara (2015). Ode to Billie Joe. 33⅓. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. XV + 142. ISBN 978-1-6235-6964-8.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Top Records of 1967". Billboard. 79 (52): 42. December 30, 1967. Retrieved June 9, 2018.
  2. ^ [1][dead link]
  3. ^ https://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/100-greatest-country-songs-of-all-time-20140601/47-bobbie-gentry-ode-to-billie-joe-1967-0849545
  4. ^ https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/6405-the-200-greatest-songs-of-the-1960s/?page=3#144
  5. ^ Parton, Chris (July 27, 2015). "Flashback: Bobbie Gentry Haunts Radio with Mysterious Suicide Ballad". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved June 9, 2018.
  6. ^ In much of the American South, "dinner" refers to the mid-day meal.
  7. ^ An Actress with a Big Secret, Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1967, p. 42. Page found 2011-07-30.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "Biography". Yahoo! GeoCities. Archived from the original on October 26, 2009.
  10. ^ a b Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books. p. 239. CN 5585.
  11. ^ Original song lyrics written by Bobbie Gentry for Ode to Billy Joe.
  12. ^ The Story Behind the Song "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry.
  13. ^ Bobbie Gentry artist biography at CountryPolitan.com, now offline. Archived version.
  14. ^ "Jumpers Get Fines". Daily Kent Stater. Kent. 9 January 1969. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  15. ^ "Jon Andreas visa" (in Swedish). Svensk mediedatabas. October 1967. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
  16. ^ Go-Set National Top 40, 4 October 1967
  17. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Ode to Billie Joe". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  18. ^ "flavour of new zealand - search listener". Flavourofnz.co.nz. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
  19. ^ "SA Charts 1965–March 1989". Retrieved 5 September 2018.
  20. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 225. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  21. ^ Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, October 21, 1967
  22. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Archived from the original on August 12, 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  23. ^ "Top 100 Hits of 1967/Top 100 Songs of 1967". Musicoutfitters.com. Retrieved 2017-04-05.
  24. ^ "'Ode To Billie Joe' Was A Surprise Hit That Prompted Dozens Of Jazz Versions". 2017-07-14.
  25. ^ "Detroit Emeralds - Shades Down / Ode To Billy Joe - Ric-Tic - USA - RT-138". 45cat.com. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
  26. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn6L9gd8ch8
  27. ^ Lorrie Morgan - Looking Back...and Looking Forward Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  28. ^ "Under The Covers CD | Rustblade – Label and Distribution". Rustblade. Retrieved 2017-06-23.
  29. ^ Dylan, Bob (1975). "Bob Dylan: "Clothesline"". The Basement Tapes. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2007.
  30. ^ Greil Marcus (1997). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt. p. 286. ISBN 9780805033939.
  31. ^ "Ode to Billy Joel". madmusic.com. Retrieved February 20, 2014.
  32. ^ "Ode to Bobbie Gentry". The American Spectator. Retrieved July 27, 2017.
  33. ^ "New '33 1/3' book explores life of mysterious chanteuse Bobbie Gentry". L.A. Times. Retrieved July 27, 2017.

External links[edit]