Lost Classic: Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe

Bobbie Gentry - Ode to Billie JoeBobbie GentryOde to Billie Joe (Capitol Nashville)

From the first strums on what sounds like a dime store student guitar and the odd orchestral backing, Bobbie Gentry‘s Ode to Billie Joe is clearly in a different sort of universe. Best known for the title track, which tells the story of young lovers and suicide from the Tallahatchie Bridge, Ode to Billy Joe is as complex as the subject matter suggests.

Video: Bobbie Gentry – “Ode To Billy Joe”

Country Soul is full of sultry songstresses with smoky voices. Dusty Springfield is probably best known, and her “Son of a Preacher Man” is probably the finest example of a genre all but forgotten today. Where the Mandrel Sisters, Dolly Parton and others opted for the lure of pop audiences that eventually brought us to the sorry reality of Rascal Flatts, Springfield and Gentry (along with Jeannie C. Riley of “Harper Valley PTA” fame) skipped the white bread for the grits. The late 60s and very early 70s produced a fantastic crop of Country Soul that sounds as unusual and compelling as ever. That it did not become the dominate cross-over sub-genre is too bad for all of us.

But for a brief period we had Bobbie Gentry who sprinkled stories of her rural southern upbringing throughout the album with songs referencing kitchen table discussions, frolicking in wide open fields, and teen dances. At first glance you might dismiss it all as more American Gothic romanticism of southern culture, but listen again and the undertones of a white girl growing up in mid-century America comes through. Where Dusty Springfield referenced “Willie and Laura May Jones” as kindred spirits living off the land, hand-to-mouth and eating cornbread and bar-b-q, it’s role playing. The British queen of country soul is a hell of an interpreter, but it’s still interpretation. Bobbie Gentry lived it. Even after her mother moved from Mississippi to California following a divorce, young Bobbie didn’t end up in the posh hills of Los Angeles but on her grandmother’s farm in Chickasaw County.

Musically, it can get a bit samey. A full six of the ten songs on the album start with the same familiar guitar strum and tone that kicks off “Ode to Billie Joe” and arranger Jimmie Haskell‘s haunting string swells start to blend together after a while, but then you get these surprises like the rock stompin’ growl of “Mississippi Delta” and the Harley-Davidson hallucination it conjures. When you see those corny biker action films of the late 60s where Tiny and Chief are freaking out around a bonfire, this is the song that’s playing.

It’s hard to imagine today how country music could have taken a course that focused less on the honky than on the tonk, but that golden era of Country Soul shows us what could have been. Lest you think I am overstating the “soul” of the genre consider the fact that this album not only replaced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the top of U.S. charts, it also reached #5 of the Billboard Black Albums charts (now known as Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums). Yes, Bobbie Gentry was a soul sister…country fried.

GLONO’s Country Soul Mix

• Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe, Mississippi Delta, Lazy Willie, Chicksaw Country Child

• Dusty Springfield: Son of a Preacher Man, Willie and Laura May Jones, Live Here With You, Breakfast in Bed

• Elvis Presley: Only the Strong Survive, Gentle On My Mind, In the Ghetto

• The Staples Singers: Why (Am I Treated So Bad), For What It’s Worth,

• Ray Charles: I Can’t Stop Loving You, Busted, Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)

• Jeannie C. Riley: Back Side of Dallas, Harper Valley PTA, The Girl Most Likely

Audio: Bobbie Gentry – “Mississippi Delta”

Bobbie Gentry: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

Video: Elvis Presley – “Gentle on my Mind”

Elvis Presley: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

Audio: Dusty Springfield – “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”

Dusty Springfield: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

Audio: The Staple Singers – “For What It’s Worth”

The Staples Singers: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

Video: Johnny Cash & Ray Charles – “Busted”

Ray Charles: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

Video: Jeannie C. Riley – “The Girl Most Likely”

Jeannie C. Riley: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

9 thoughts on “Lost Classic: Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe”

  1. More country soul classics: basically anything recorded by Chips Moman at American Studios in Memphis (Box Tops, 1969 Neil Diamond, “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” by Aretha Franklin).

    And of course, the Flying Burrito Brothers!

  2. To this I respectively submit:

    Joe South – Games People Play

    Brook Benton – Rainy Night in Georgia

    O.C Smith – Little Green Apples

    Righteous Brothers – Georgia on my Mind

    Clarence Carter – Patches

    Dobie Gray – Drift Away

  3. It has long been rumoured that Bobbie Gentry did not write Ode to BJ at all. It was probably written by the great Jim Ford and sold to her for some quick cash. Anyone familiar with Ford’s songs (and you should all be) will notice that it fits his profile of weird southern soul perfectly. She never wrote anything else evenly remotely like it or as good. Check out the Bear family collections that have been released recently.

  4. Bobbie Gentry did indeed write Ode to Billie Joe. She first wrote it as as short story before setting it to music. The original short is housed at The University of Mississippi. This woman wrote many great songs including Fancy which has been covered 20 times.

  5. First of all, the idea that Bobbie Gentry did not write this classic and it was sold to her for quick cash is laughable. The named settings in the song, Choctaw Ridge and The Tallahatchie Bridge are real places from HER childhood. It seems some people have a probelm with a woman writing a modern classic that has sold over 40 million reocords and been coveredover 100 times.

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