It’s “Ode To Billie Joe” Day, So Let’s Hear It For Bobbie Gentry

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day…

This is, of course, the opening to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” — and the first thing that popped into my head this morning when I woke up this morning and saw what day it was. The day Billie Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

For the uninitiated, the classic Southern Gothic folk song tells the tale of the suicide of a young man under mysterious circumstances, and the conversation had by family of the girl who (maybe) loved him after the fact. Or who at least was seen with him on the bridge the day before throwing an unnamed object off of it. Gentry never revealed what the object was, and said the song was less about that than the way this particular family dealt with his death.

Gentry herself hadn’t originally set out to be a singer – she just wanted to write songs for other people. But eventually she got noticed herself, and came out with “Ode To Billie Joe” at the age of 23. Despite how unusual the song was, it kicked The Beatles “All You Need Is Love” out of the number one spot, garnered four Emmys, and was ranked by Billboard as the third best song of 1967.

Later, the song was “adapted” into a movie, called “Ode To Billy Joe,” starring Max Baer, Jr., who played Judd on the “Beverly Hillbillies” – in which the impetus for Billy Joe’s suicide turned out to be him discovering he was gay after a drunken homosexual experience.

Gentry later wrote the song “Fancy”–which has of course, been covered by practically everyone–which she considered to be a feminist anthem.

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.

That Gentry aligned herself with the women’s movement is hardly a surprise. She was all about conducting her own business, writing her own songs and playing her own instruments–in an era where the men in the music industry pretty much just wanted her to be a sex symbol.

After several years of fame, of hosting a variety show in England, partnering up with Glen Campbell, and a run in Vegas, Gentry essentially disappeared. She hasn’t performed in public since 1981, nor has she granted any interviews. All that is known is that she lives in Los Angeles these days.

Despite having disappeared from the public eye over 30 years ago, Gentry continued to be a major influence on many modern female singer-songwriters like Jill Sobule, Sinead O’Connor, Reba McIntire, Jenny Lewis, Beth Orton and others.

For more information on Bobbie Gentry I highly recommend checking out Tara Murtha’s “Ode To Billie Joe” 33 1/3.

[Tara Murtha]
[Ms. Magazine]