Life at 33 1/3: The mystery at the Tallahatchie Bridge

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Bobbie Gentry: Ode To Billie Joe (Capitol)

Bobbie Gentry had not yet turned 23 when this album was released, and the title-song caught people completely off guard.  There was nothing like it out there in radio-land.  As it hit # 1 (replacing The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” – the album actually replaced “Sgt. Pepper” on the top spot, making her feat even more astonishing) the summer of love had turned to autumn, and it sounded like a hangover. 

The naked arrangement forces the listener to focus his attention on Bobbie’s remarkable voice, dark and smoky, and the story it unfolds.  She speaks as much as she sings over her own spartan, rippling guitar accompaniment against an angular, obliquely falling string arrangement that highlights the dark and haunting lyrics.

God knows why “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”, and what “somethin’” he had thrown into the river, she never lets us know, but the suicide is given a gothic setting the way it is discussed around a dinner table with constant interruptions as “pass the biscuits, please” and “I’ll have another piece of apple pie”.

The song predates “Twin Peaks” by 23 years and might have given David Lynch some ideas.  It was actually turned into a movie in 1976, but after a promising start the mystery evolves into some muddy storytelling and we are left with a stack of missed opportunities, unfortunately.

The rest of the album stays faithful to the arrangements of the title track.  Bobbie’s dark and sultry voice and staccato guitar strumming is spellbinding, and her storytelling lyrics never short of fascinating, though none of them are as creepy as the title cut.  If you buy this album you are in for a treat as it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before.

Bobbie went on to great things after this stunning debut, but she never repeated its style and arrangements, though her songwriting did stay close to her Mississippi roots.  She clocked up 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1967 and 1976, including three duets with Glen Campbell.  Her biggest hit in the UK was a marvelous version of the Bacharach/David-chestnut “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” lifted from her superb 1969-album “Touch ‘Em With Love”.  Her career took her to Vegas, and she had her own TV-series running in Great Britain.

Bobbie was one of the first women who wrote and produced herself; she was a feminist, not common for a country star.  In 1978, at the age of 34, she packed up and left showbiz as it didn’t appeal to her anymore.  She shuns media, a fact that has turned her into a fascinating mystery in herself.  In 2012 BBC broadcast a radio documentary entitled ‘Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?’

As for “Ode To Billie Joe”, the song has had a lasting impact on popular music.  In 2011 Joe Henry cited the song as an early influence, elaborating: “an incredibly deft bit of writing in the way that that story is unfolded. … [I]t places the character in a moment, and then the story just starts to unfold around it”.

Released: July 1967

Produced by: Kelly Gordon

(All tracks by Bobbie Gentry; except where indicated)

Side 1

“Mississippi Delta” – 3:05

“I Saw an Angel Die” – 2:56

“Chickasaw County Child” – 2:45

“Sunday Best” – 2:50

“Niki Hoeky” (Jim Ford, Lolly Vegas, Pat Vegas) – 2:45

Side 2

“Papa, Woncha Let Me Go to Town With You?” – 2:30

“Bugs” – 2:05

“Hurry, Tuesday Child” – 3:52

“Lazy Willie” – 2:36

“Ode to Billie Joe” – 4:15