"Ode to Billie Joe" is a song by American singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry released by Capitol Records in July 1967, and later used as the title-track of her debut album. Five weeks after its release, the song topped Billboard's Pop singles chart. It also appeared in the top 10 of the Adult Contemporary and Hot R&B singles charts, and in the top 20 of the Hot Country Songs list.
|"Ode to Billie Joe"|
|Single by Bobbie Gentry|
|from the album Ode to Billie Joe|
|Studio||Capitol Studio C, Hollywood, California|
|Producer(s)||Kelly Gordon, Bobby Paris|
|Bobbie Gentry singles chronology|
The song takes the form of a first-person narrative performed over sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment 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. The song received widespread attention, leaving its audience intrigued as to what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Gentry later clarified that she intended the song to portray the family's indifference to the suicide in what she deemed "a study in unconscious cruelty", while she remarked the object thrown was not relevant to the message.
"Ode to Billie Joe" was nominated for eight Grammy Awards; Gentry and arranger Jimmie Haskell won three between them. Gentry's writing was adapted for the 1976 film Ode to Billy Joe. The song appeared on Rolling Stone's lists, 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and Greatest Country Songs, while Pitchfork featured it on their 200 Best Songs of the 1960s list.
Background and recordingEdit
Singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. After her parents had divorced, she continued to live there with her paternal grandparents. At age 13, Gentry moved to California to live with her mother. She graduated from high school and entered UCLA as a philosophy major, before transferring to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. After she met Jody Reynolds at one of his concerts, Gentry took part in a recording session with him to sing two duets. Singer-songwriter Jim Ford introduced Gentry to labels and music publishers. Ford took Gentry to Del-Fi Records, where he presented "Ode to Billie Joe" to the label's A&R man Barry White. Ford claimed credit for writing the song, telling White he had brought Gentry along because he felt he could not sing it himself. The composition impressed White, and Ford expressed an interest in selling it to him. White took the song to Del-Fi Records president Bob Keane, who did not like it and refused to make a purchase. Ford later claimed Gentry "stole the song" from him.
Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon received Gentry's demo for "Mississippi Delta". Gordon liked it, and he asked for a B-side for the song. Gentry planned to sell "Ode to Billie Joe" to Capitol Records, and she decided that recording the demo herself was cheaper than using a professional singer. The song's recording happened soon after Gentry's session that yielded "Mississippi Delta" in February 1967, while Bobby Paris assisted her in the studio in exchange for guitar session work on some of his own studio recordings. Gentry intended to have Lou Rawls record the song. Larry Shayne, Gentry's publisher, warned Gordon against adding a rhythm section to the track. Shayne was a friend of David Axelrod, Capitol Record's main A&R man. He sold Axelrod the song's recording rights for $10,000 (equivalent to $81,300 in 2021). Gordon liked Gentry's vocals on the demo, but he decided to add a sparse instrumental arrangement to the recording. Gordon called Jimmie Haskell, who prepared a string arrangement with four violins and two cellos. Jesse Erlich played one cello like an upright bass. Haskell felt the song sounded like a film and decided to write the arrangement as if it were a score. Gordon then overdubbed Gentry's recording with the strings. He determined that "Ode to Billie Joe" was going to be used for the A-side of the single.
Haskell later claimed that a seven-minute version of the song existed, but that Gordon cut it to under five minutes to favor radio play. The existence of a seven-minute version has not been confirmed. Meanwhile, a manuscript of a draft of the song donated by Gentry to the University of Mississippi contained stanzas that were not included on the final recording.
"Ode to Billie Joe" takes the form of a first-person narrative by the young daughter of a Mississippi Delta family. It offers fragments of dinnertime conversation on the day that a local boy, an acquaintance of the narrator, jumped to his death from a nearby bridge. The account is interspersed with everyday, polite, mealtime conversation. The song's last 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 reminding them to clean their feet, the mother announces she received news from Choctaw Ridge: "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." The verse is repeated through the song as the story develops to "heighten the mystery". Unmoved, the father comments that "Billie Joe never had a lick of sense", before asking for the biscuits and adding "there's five more acres in the lower forty, I've got to plow". The brother then expresses his surprise, but continues eating his meal.
The mother notices her daughter is distraught, and is not eating. She mentions the "young preacher" Brother Taylor visited the house earlier and that they would have dinner with him on Sunday. As an afterthought, the mother adds the preacher saw Billie Joe with a girl that "looked a lot" like the daughter, and "she and Billie Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge". A year later, the brother moves to Tupelo, Mississippi, after he marries, while the father dies of an unnamed virus. Even though she expresses no sadness over her father's death, the daughter notices her mother is still distraught by it. Rather than consoling her, she routinely picks flowers and throws them off the bridge.
The song became a success because it created curiosity in listeners, as Gentry did not mention what was thrown off of the bridge or why Billie Joe committed suicide. It features perfect rhymes from the first to the sixth line of every verse. Meanwhile, the fifth and sixth lines of the song repeat the rhyme of "ridge" and "bridge" in every stanza. The composition does not have a chorus. The musical phrases begin with pickup notes, while melismas and downbeats are used for the rhymes.
Gentry's comments on the lyricsEdit
In August 1967, Gentry told the Los Angeles Times she wanted to show "people's lack of ability" to empathize with others' "tragedy". She pointed at the mother, noticing but not understanding her daughter's lack of appetite, while later the daughter is unaware of the similarity of her mother's behavior after the father dies. Gentry explained that both characters had "isolated themselves in their own personal tragedies", and remained unconcerned for the others. The songwriter compared the end product to a play. On the object thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, she commented that the audience had found more meanings than she had intended. Gentry mentioned the theories she had heard at the time included a baby, a wedding ring, or flowers. While she indicated that what happened at the bridge was the motivation behind Billie Joe's suicide, she had left that open to the listener's interpretation. Gentry said she had no answer and her sole motivation was to show "people's apathy".
In an interview with the Associated Press in November 1967, Gentry called the song "a study in unconscious cruelty". Gentry told the news agency that audiences still asked her what was thrown off the bridge rather than noticing "the thoughtlessness of people expressed in the song", adding that what had been thrown was unimportant. She said people suggested to her it was a draft card, or a bottle of LSD pills. The songwriter clarified she knew what it was, but said she considered it irrelevant to the story, and repeated that she had deliberately left interpretation open. Gentry remarked the song's message revolved around the "nonchalant way" the family discussed the suicide and that what was thrown off of the bridge was included because it established a relationship between Billie Joe and the daughter, and provided "a possible motivation for his suicide the next day". The interview ended with Gentry's suggestion that it could have been a wedding ring. Gentry told The New York Times in 1969: "I had my own idea what it was while I was writing it, but it's not that important. Actually it was something symbolic. But I've never told anyone what it was, not even my own dear mother."
Release and receptionEdit
The single "Mississippi Delta"-"Ode to Billie Joe" was released in July 1967. Paris was given a co-producer credit on the single with Gordon. Five weeks after its release, it reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. By the sixth week, the single had sold one million copies. It also appeared at number 7 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart, at number 8 on the Hot R&B singles chart, and number 17 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Billboard's year-end chart placed the song at number 3, while Canada's RPM placed it at number 16.
In Australia, the song reached number 4 on Go-Set's National Top 40. Meanwhile, it peaked at number 6 on the Irish Singles Chart. On the New Zealand Listener chart, the song reached number 3.
In November 1967, Life published an article about the song's success after a visit with Gentry and her parents in Mississippi. Gentry showed the journalists a bridge in Money, Mississippi, that featured the characteristics of the one she wrote about as she clarified: "this is what I had in mind" she continued: "The river isn't very deep here, but the current is strong." Gentry was photographed crossing the bridge for the story. The single was nominated in eight categories at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards and won three: Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best New Artist, and Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals. By 1969, Gentry estimated the single had sold three million copies.
Gentry sued Paris to have his co-producer credit removed, claiming she was the recording's sole producer. Paris's credit was removed on the album release. Soon after she left Capitol Records, Paris sued Gentry for $100,000 and the label for $300,000 in punitive damages for failing to pay him one fifth of the royalties from the song's sales. Gentry and Paris testified against one another in the 1973 case. The jury awarded Paris one percent of the total royalties from "Ode to Billie Joe" and "Mississippi Delta", that amounted to $32,277.40 (equivalent to $197,000 in 2021). Gentry told Penny Anderson of the New York Times in 1974 that she originally produced "Ode To Billie Joe" and most of her recordings. She added "but a woman doesn't stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer's name was nearly always put on the records." Gentry expressed the desire to gain more control over the production of her songs and recordings.
The staff of Billboard welcomed the release as "fascinating material and performance" with a "potent lyric content that is worth the unusual length of the disk". The Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather considered it an "aural parallel" to the film In the Heat of the Night (1967), deeming them both "sardonic, knife-edge studies of human nature". Feather concluded Gentry added "a durable new dimension" to American "contemporary folklore". The New York Times commented on the success of the song four weeks after its release. Critic John S. Wilson felt the song was "a most unlikely candidate for success", as it was "long by radio programming standards" and he considered the topic "nothing startling, nothing strange, nothing particularly original". Wilson remarked the lyrics had "something to say about indifference ... which, after a couple of clarifying hearings, drifts off into the midst of forgotten poesy".
Nixon Smiley wrote in his piece for the Miami Herald that "not since William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying has anything come out of Mississippi as earthy and as fundamental" as 'Ode to Billie Joe'". Smiley determined that upon "casual hearing there seems to be nothing great about the song, the lyrics or the rendition", but that it "captivated both the young and old". He noted disc jockeys were "surprised, even flabbergasted", and "sometimes disgusted".
The Montgomery Advertiser found the song "hard to classify", and remarked that it "has [a] rhythm and blues beat, and it's clever", and it noted the presence of mystery. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called it, "One of the most haunting songs of the year." The Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote that "the lyrics are too much" and that "after a few listenings, the subject matter becomes clear, and the message gets across". The review pointed out that, "musically, the song is as fine as it is lyrically inventive" and that it "grips with heretofore taboo themes".
Following the success of the single, Capitol Records received 500,000 pre-orders for Ode to Billie Joe, surpassing the label's record held by the Beatles's Meet the Beatles!. Gentry began receiving offers to make a motion picture based on the film in 1967, but she rejected them, preferring to wait for an offer from a movie maker who would "portray Billie Joe and his girlfriend in a serious, sensitive manner". In 1975, Gentry and her Shayne accepted an offer from Max Baer Jr., who decided to direct the film. Baer said his interest was to have two unknown young people "because the audience has to believe they are Bobbie and Billie Joe". The film would be shot on location in Mississippi with a budget of $1.5 million (equivalent to $7.55 million in 2021). Warner Bros. commissioned Herman Raucher to write an adaptation of the song for the upcoming film; Raucher's adaptation and novel were both titled Ode to Billy Joe. Gentry was present during the shooting and contributed a musical score. At the time of the production, she told United Press International that the film would "answer many questions left unanswered by the song". The film starred Robby Benson as Billy Joe and Glynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee. In the adaptation, the pair throw a rag doll off of the bridge, while a homosexual experience with the owner of the sawmill is established as the reason for Billy Joe's suicide.
"Ode to Billie Joe" reappeared on the charts in 1976. It charted at number 65 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in Canada at numbers 92 and 42 on the RPM Top Singles and Adult Contemporary charts, respectively.
After hearing "Ode to Billie Joe" on the radio, Tony Joe White was inspired to write songs. White felt that his own life experience resembled that of Billie Joe, as he inhabited a similar place during his childhood and he remarked that the song was "real". Soon after, White composed "Polk Salad Annie" (1969). By 1969, Leflore County established a fine of $180 (equivalent to $1,300 in 2021) for people who jumped off of the Tallahatchie Bridge and the other bridges of the area. The county estimated that between 40 and 50 men had jumped off the 20 feet (6 m) structure, but none had died. The bridge collapsed in June 1972 after a fire and a new one was built in its place. In 2013, a memorial marker for the song was added south of the new bridge as part of the Mississippi Country Music Trail.
Rolling Stone included "Ode To Billie Joe" at number 419 on its 2003 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. The publication also listed it at number 47 on its 100 Greatest Country Songs in 2014; Richard Gehr deemed the track a "sultry country blues that drifts downstream on Gentry's ominous acoustic guitar". Meanwhile, Pitchfork placed it at number 144 on its 200 Best Songs of the 1960s list.
In August 1967, Margie Singleton released a cover of the song that reached number 40 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles. Ray Bryant's version reached number 89 on Billboard's Hot 100 and number 34 on their Adult Contemporary chart soon after. King Curtis charted with his cover at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100, also in 1967, and at number 6 on the R&B chart. Also in 1967, Joe Dassin released a cover of the song in French, entitled "Marie-Jeanne". In the song, the main character is a man, while Marie-Jeanne jumps off of the Garonne bridge.
A parody by Bob Dylan entitled "Clothes Line Saga", originally recorded in 1967, was released on the 1975 album The Basement Tapes. It mimicked 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 a revelation that "The Vice-President's gone mad!." Dylan's song was originally titled "Answer to 'Ode'".
A 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live parodied the song where Kristen Wiig and host Paul Rudd play a married singer-songwriter couple who perform "Ode to Tracking Number". Jill Sobule's album California Years (2009) featured "Where is Bobbie Gentry?", which used the same melody in a lyrical sequel. The narrator, seeking the reclusive Gentry, claims to be the abandoned child of Gentry and Billie Joe. In 2016, Lorrie Morgan covered the song at a slower pace for her 2016 album Letting Go ... Slow. Morgan commented on 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."
|Ray Bryant||US Billboard Hot 100||89|
|US Adult Contemporary (Billboard)||34|
|King Curtis and the Kingpins|
|Canada R&B (RPM)||26|
|US Billboard Hot 100||28|
|US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (Billboard)||6|
|US Cash Box Top 100||34|
|Margie Singleton||US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)||39|
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