Music News
11:02 am
Tue June 3, 2014

The Confounding, Enigmatic 'Ode To Billie Joe'

Originally published on Tue June 3, 2014 6:03 pm

"It was the third of June ..."

Today is June 3, a date marked by the song "Ode to Billie Joe." In 1967, it was a No. 1 hit for Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Miss. For two weeks, Gentry was bigger than the Beatles, as her album bumped Sgt. Pepper off the top of the charts.

From its opening notes, "Ode to Billie Joe" transports you to rural Mississippi, to its farming life and church-based communities. It appears idyllic from the outside, but spend a short time in Gentry's world and you quickly realize that it's filled with dark secrets.

Part of the song's enduring power is that the song asks more questions than it answers. There's a suicide in the first verse, and it just gets weirder after that. Why did Billie Joe jump off the bridge? Is the girl who's singing the same girl spotted with Billie Joe on the bridge? What did they throw off the bridge? And how can you "pass the biscuits" at a time like this?

Of course, the narrative isn't the whole story. What's really compelling is how the characters in the song deal with tragedy — making it idle talk over dinner, burying the secrets behind it, dissociating from its reality.

There's so much power in the brilliant instrumental arrangements in the song, the string section echoing the sound of flowers fluttering down off the bridge, and the pulse of the Tallahatchie River itself.

Bobbie Gentry is as mysterious as her Southern Gothic masterpiece. She rarely gave interviews and disappeared from public life in the mid-1970s. Gentry spoke little of her childhood, except to say that she grew up without electricity and didn't have many toys. Perhaps that contributed to the rich imagination that yielded this enigmatic song.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today is the third of June, a date marked by the song, "Ode To Billie Jo." In 1967, it was a number one hit for Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. For two weeks, Gentry was bigger than the Beatles, as her album bumped "Sergeant Pepper" off the top of the charts. The song has been covered, sampled and even inspired a film of the same name. Yet, it's confounded listeners for decades. Reviewer Meredith Ochs tells us why.

MEREDITH OCHS: From its opening notes, "Ode To Billie Joe" transports you to rural Mississippi, to its formal life and church-based communities. It appears idyllic from outside, but spend a short time in Bobbie gentry's world and you quickly realize it's filled with dark secrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

BOBBIE GENTRY: And then, she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

OCHS: Part of "Ode To Billie Joe's" enduring power is that the song asks more questions than it answers. There's a suicide in the first verse, and it just gets weirder after that. Why did Billie Joe jump off the bridge? Is the girl who's singing the same girl spotted with Billie Joe on the bridge? What did they throw off the bridge? And how could you eat biscuits at a time like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

GENTRY: Well, Billie Joe never a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please. There's five more acres in the lower 40 I've got to plow. And Mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe, anyhow.

OCHS: Of course, "Ode To Billy Joe's" narrative isn't the only story. What's really compelling is how the characters in the song deal with tragedy - making it idle talk over dinner, burying the secrets behind it, disassociating from its reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

GENTRY: 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 picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge. And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

OCHS: Bobbie Gentry is as mysterious as her Southern Gothic masterpiece. She rarely gave interviews and disappeared from public life in the mid-1970s. Gentry spoke little of her childhood, except to say she grew up without electricity and didn't have many toys. Perhaps that contributed to the rich imagination that yielded this enigmatic song. On this year's anniversary of "Ode to Billie Joe," I'd like to say thank you, Bobbie Gentry, for igniting our imaginations and for giving us a gentle lesson in how to live better lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

GENTRY: I was out chopping cotton and my brother was baling hay.

CORNISH: Reviewer Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ at Sirius XM Radio. She gave us an appreciation of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit, "Ode To Billie Joe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

GENTRY: And Mama hollered out the back door, y'all remember to wipe your feet. And then, she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.