Part one: Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billy Joe’

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“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ 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, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” 

— lyrics, “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry

In the midst of an enormous project in this old farmhouse, I sprayed vinegar water on ancient wallpaper that was holding on for dear life. After working at it for far too long in total silence, I hunted up a small radio and tuned it to whatever came in with the least amount of static.

Suddenly, it was the summer of 1967, as Bobbie Gentry’s iconic song floated across the airwaves and into my torn-up kitchen.

Rarely does a song set me down in a place and time like the haunting melody about Billy Joe MacAllister. I experienced a stunning case of deja vu.

1967

In the summer of 1967, my sisters and I all took turns helping Mom remodel one of the farmhouses my parents rented out, mostly scraping old wallpaper, and my oldest sister couldn’t travel anywhere without a radio. “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles held the top spot for weeks on end. We were Ohio farm girls, but suddenly the boys from Liverpool carried us to new places.

In the other-worldly Los Angeles, in July 1967, a beautiful girl who had grown up dirt poor in Mississippi was searching for a way to make her music heard.

Bobbie Gentry found her way to a lucky break and was given the chance to record her song. She nailed a keeper take in under 40 minutes.

The record producer said to his crew, “No one’s ever going to hear this song anyway,” then basically patted the young singer-songwriter on the head and sent her on her way. What he didn’t know is that disc jockeys in every genre of music would find the song too good to ignore.

Number one

Within just a few weeks of radio picking up the recording, “Ode To Billy Joe” did the unthinkable: it managed to knock the Beatles out of the top spot and stayed at number one for four weeks.

This was at a time when radio was everything in the music world. If the radio played it, we listened and wanted more. Bobbie Gentry won three Grammys for the song, including best new artist, the first time a country singer had done so.

Innocence

The song played endlessly throughout the late summer of 1967. I was just 8 years old and it was the first current hit song I memorized.

I had no idea what the song conveyed, but in my innocence, I simply believed it spoke our language, from fieldwork and baling hay to jumping in for a swim.

I was perplexed when adults said it should be taken off the radio, making me hold the tune ever dearer, fearing it might disappear for a reason unknown to me. On the strumming of its first chord, we swooned when the song came on the radio.

Billy Joe MacAllister invaded our thoughts while baling our own hay, bringing the cows in from the far pasture, feeding calves or spending hours scraping wallpaper in the empty rental house under our mom’s direction.

So here I stood today, vinegar water bottle in one hand, my scraper in the other, and Bobbie Gentry’s voice took me right back.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.

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