Part two: Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe

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“And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
Well, Billy 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 Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

— lyrics, Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry

All my life I’ve been a country music girl. Raised on Patsy Cline at my daddy’s knee, I would ask if he wanted me to play Roger Miller’s album to lighten up the mood and give us a laugh, or if he wanted me to try to find Loretta Lynn on the radio.

Our radio played in the milking parlor while we milked the cows every morning and evening, drowned out in large part by the heavy noise of the compressor, the grain auger and the sounds of our own voices. When I could, I’d get close enough to the radio to hear a favorite song. It was always tuned to country in those early days of my life.

Patsy Cline’s distinctive voice can still move me to tears even after all these years, because I connect with the sadness my dad quietly endured when she died in a plane crash at the height of her career.

“Way too young,” is all he would say, and I knew he equated the tragedy with his own mother’s death at age 35.

New star

In the summer of 1967, a new star for a new generation appeared in Bobbie Gentry. In a rare interview, Gentry said she grew up in rural Chicasaw County, Mississippi, without electricity “and I didn’t have many playthings.”

What she had was music. Her grandmother traded one of her milk cows for a neighbor’s piano in order to encourage her music-loving granddaughter. Gentry wrote her first song at age 7.

After her parents divorced, 13-year-old Bobbie was forced to leave her piano behind, moving to California with her mother, who soon remarried. With improved fortunes, Bobbie was able to teach herself guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. She began playing gigs at a local country club.

Country music captivates in its storytelling, but no song stirred conversations and private musings quite like Ode to Billy Joe during a turbulent time in America.

Disappeared

The beauty who penned and performed the hit was riding high, singing with Glen Campbell and appearing on television. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived, becoming so reclusive that no one even knew for sure where she lived. Today, it is believed that she remains in California, but has never granted interviews and avoids all appearances.

The haunting melody and storytelling of the song has stayed with me, coming back with a powerful punch when hearing it on the radio this past week. The lyrics came back to me, memorized when I was just an impressionable kid on our dairy farm, baling hay and helping my mom remodel an old farm house for renters arriving soon.

“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 Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge
A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy 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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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, in college.

1 COMMENT

  1. Beautiful article. Bobbie Gentry has returned to her beloved South. She lives in a secluded multi million dollar estate on the Tennessee border with Mississippi. The revival of her music has been breathtaking over the last 18 months. Her box set The Girl from Chickasaw Country: The Complete Capitol Masters has been a commercial and critical sensation. To date, 15,000 copies of the 100 dollar, 8 cd set have sold in six pressings. The L.A ,New York and London Times all named it top re-issue of 2018. A grammy nomination followed in 2019. The numbers of her two biggest classic story songs are simply staggering. Ode to Billie Joe, 50 million in record sales on 200 covers. Fancy, 25 million in record sales on over a dozen covers. 20 of her songs have been covered by other artists. The legend lives on.

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