Music

‘Ode To Billie Joe’: The Story Behind Bobbie Gentry’s Perplexing Hit

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In July of 1967, "Ode To Billie Joe" and the mystery of the Tallahatchie Bridge hit the United States after Capitol Records released a cryptic tune of a southern family discussing the death of a young boy over black-eyed peas, apple pie and biscuits. 

Bobbie Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter, was raised by her grandparents in the backwoods of Chickasaw County, Mississippi. When Gentry was seven, her grandmother sold a milk cow to purchase a piano for her to play. This started her interest in composing and becoming a singer-songwriter.  

When Gentry was 13, she moved to Palm Springs, California to live with her mother. While attending college at UCLA, Gentry supported herself by performing at local clubs. She transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and began her study of music theory and arrangement. 

In early 1967, Gentry started making demos of songs that she believed she could sell to other artists to record. In July, Kelly Gordon was assigned to produce Ode To Billie Joe for the label. The track "Mississippi Delta" is the song that caught Capitol's attention, but after the first string session with Jimmie Haskell, it was decided that the song "Ode to Billie Joe" would be the A-side single released on July 10. 

The Story Behind 'Ode to Billie Joe'

The southern gothic tune spent four weeks in the number one spot on Billboard and sold more than three million copies world wide. The song's success sped up the production of the album and Capitol pre-ordered an unheard of half-a-million copies to be sold. Ode to Billie Joe replaced the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club at the top of the Billboard 200. Gentry won three Grammy Awards in 1967 (Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.) She also took home the award for the Academy of Country Music's Most Promising Female Vocalist. 

Nearly a decade later, Ode to Billy Joe, a film produced by Max Baer and written by Herman Raucher, hit the box office. Billie Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) and Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O'Connor) were based off of characters from the original song by Gentry. The movie follows a direct storyline, but Gentry told Baer and Raucher that she could reveal no details of what actually happened on the bridge. 

What is 'Ode to Billie Joe' About?

Long after the awards have gathered dust and the record has left the charts, the mystery below the surface of the muddy water and the lure of the dinner table conversations on Choctaw Ridge lives on. 

Some say what Brother Taylor saw the young girl and Billie Joe throwing into the water was an engagement ring or a baby. Some say the narrarator of Gentry's song had talked Billie Joe out of committing suicide and they had thrown the gun over the bridge together.

I guess we will never know what happened on that sleepy, dusty Delta day. The secret is kept safe in the mind of Bobbie Gentry, who canceled a show for the first time in 1983 and hasn't been around the music industry since. No matter your version of the song, I think we can all agree that her story will live as long as the Tallahatchie River runs.

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'Ode to Billie Joe' Lyrics:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton, and my brother was bailin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door, y'all, remember to wipe your feet
And then she said, I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas
Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please
There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
I'll have another piece-a apple pie; you know, it don't seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And mama said to me, child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning, and you haven't touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge
A year has come and gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round; papa caught it, and he died last spring
And now mama doesn't seem to want to do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

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‘Ode To Billie Joe’: The Story Behind Bobbie Gentry’s Perplexing Hit