There are a few songs have a kind of evil magic that grabs your subconscious and won’t let go. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe is one of the best. When it was released in the summer of 1967 it was an instant hit, selling 750,000 copies its first week. It knocked the Beatles “All you need is love” out of the number one slot.
Like everyone else I was fascinated by the mystery of what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The popular theories of the time suggested a token of failed romance, perhaps a wedding ring or flowers. There were many people who believed in a much darker story. It was even suggested that the object thrown into those muddy waters was an aborted fetus. Years later, a movie was made that tried to answer those questions. The movie was an unfortunate exercise written without any help from Bobbie Gentry. She was the wise one, these stories are much better when every detail is not spelled out. A little mystery lets the audience read in their own fears and beliefs.
The song also raises questions about Bobbie Gentry. Where did the lyrics come from? Is it really about some dark moment in her past? She has never said anything about the song’s origins. Maybe it’s completely a work of her imagination, then again, maybe there is some dark reality behind it all.
Not much is known about Bobbie Gentry’s childhood. She was born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944. Her birthplace in Chickasaw County was completely rural, nothing but a few small towns there. The nearest town of any size was Tupelo, just to the north.
The only comment she’s ever made about her early childhood was, “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many playthings.” Even as a young child she was interested in gospel and folk music. Her grandmother supported her interest to the point of trading a milk cow for a piano. Bobbie took to it immediately. She wrote her first song at age seven, “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog.”
She moved to California at age 13 to live with her divorced mother. She later moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, and worked doing both clerical jobs, along with some modeling and nightclub performances. She transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her composing and performance skills. While studying at the Conservatory, she made a demo tape which ended up on the desk of Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon.
When she got into the studio, she laid down the tape of “Ode to Billie Joe” in 40 minutes. It was a simple track that featured only her guitar and vocals. The background strings were added later.
In the interviews she gave after the song was a hit, she was crystal clear about the song’s meaning. She told Fred Bronson of Billboard: “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.”
As the song’s story plays, there is a notable lack of concern about the fate of Billie Joe McAllister. The narrator makes it clear that her family does not know, or maybe doesn’t want to know, that the girl seen with Billie Joe the day before his suicide is sitting at the table with them.
More than 40 years after hearing the song for the first time, I decided to take a little deeper look. Freely admitting that I might be a slow learner, I noticed one thing that raised some questions.
The title of the Album was “Ode to Billie Joe.” Why the feminine spelling? The more common masculine spelling would have been ‘Billy Joe’. Feminine spelling would have likely been “Billie Jo.” More research just confuses the issue even further. In the archives at Ole Miss University, they have the first page of Gentry’s original, handwritten, lyrics. Obviously a work in progress. But it does contain a first verse that was never recorded. On that page she spells the name Billy Jo. Also androgynous, but in a different way.
Is Ms Gentry using the androgynous spelling to suggest a motive that would explain why a friend or lover would embrace suicide? Keep in mind that in the rural South, circa the 1960s, being a gay man, or even slightly effeminate, would have been a major cross to bear. If that describes Billie Joe McAllister, life would not have been easy. It would also provide an explanation for the ambivalence of the narrator’s family. No one would be surprised at a bad outcome for Billie Joe.
Maybe the spelling on the album cover was a simple mistake? But Bobbie Gentry’s real name was Roberta, the feminized version of Robert. Just maybe there is a conscious or unconscious comment about what happens when parents want a child of one gender and get the other. If there was ever a situation where unconscious cruelty could rear its ugly head, that would have to be at the top of the list.
Of course, there is zero evidence that any of this speculation has any meaning. The lyrics and music are haunting in a uniquely Southern Gothic way. The song brings back memories of the caste system so prevalent in the 1960s south, along with generous dollops of Christian sexual repression. You can’t resist trying to fill in the blanks.
That’s the mystery of a great song. Maybe it says something about a poor southern country girl, with a huge talent, that made good. Maybe it reflects something dark in our own minds.