Bobbie Gentry

GNC

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There was an excellent documentary about singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry on Radio 2 last night. You can listen to it here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hjd81

She of course wrote and performed one of the most mysterious hit records of all time, Ode to Billie Joe, which has puzzled listeners for decades. Here she is singing it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv33eaygVDQ

But now she's a mystery herself, as she disappeared and nobody seems to know what happened to her. So if you want to ask her about her hit song and what was really happening between the narrator and Billie Joe, and what was thrown off the Tallahassee Bridge, you're out of luck. I don't think she'd explain it anyway, the power is in the mystery.

There was a film that came up with an explanation, but it was pretty lame and not worth bothering with as a serious solution.
 

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rynner2 said:
gncxx said:
There was a film that came up with an explanation, but it was pretty lame and not worth bothering with as a serious solution.
Maybe there is no solution - perhaps it's just an imaginary mystery.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe
It's one of those nagging stories which seems to have a solution, though, as if the relevant points are there but we're missing the most important one. It's a fascinating song, one of those where if you hear it on the radio you irresistably find yourself listening intently to the lyrics right to the end. Sort of like Camouflage by Stan Ridgway.

I notice Bob Dylan didn't like Ode much.
 

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I've read that Ms. Gentry would say when asked about the meaning of the song that she indicated that the mystery wasn't central to her mind, that it was more about the gaps in the relationship between the family, and how they couldn't express their thoughts directly.

If you listen to her songs, I think it's obvious she wasn't happy with fame and wanted to live a normal slower paced country life. She left the public eye shortly after a failed marriage...
 

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MrRING said:
If you listen to her songs, I think it's obvious she wasn't happy with fame and wanted to live a normal slower paced country life. She left the public eye shortly after a failed marriage...
In the documentary she was reported as being pretty upfront about getting rich and famous, but then when the hits dried up she began to have second thoughts. She'll be in her late sixties by now if she's still alive, and the doc put forward the idea that she was like J.D. Salinger, still writing her songs for no one to hear them.
 

dreeness

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:?

Okay, a mystery, hmm...
Right, let's just tear this thing apart, and solve the mystery.



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 we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door
"y'all remember to wipe your feet."
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

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."
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

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy 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 of apple pie, you know it don't seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

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 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billy Joe.
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 wanna 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.




A few initial observations:

1) The father's reaction is -- to say the least -- wildly inappropriate. Billy Joe (a youth who was to the family obviously "known" rather than merely "known of", since he was a childhood friend of the narrator's brother) has died in an abrupt and tragic manner. But "never had a lick of sense" is all the father has to say about him. Not just dismissive; smug. Cruel, vindictive?

2) The brother says "You know it don't seem right." Well, what doesn't seem right? That he saw Billy Joe the day before, apparently not behaving in any abnormal/suicidal manner, and then apparently Billy Joe had committed suicide that very morning. Apparently.

3) The father had "more" plowing to do, so apparently he had been out plowing earlier. He had been away from the house earlier in the day.
At the dinner table, he changes the subject, very abruptly.

4) The mother and the brother both express some distress over the death of Billy Joe. Not much, but some. The narrator... says nothing at all. She says nothing, eats nothing, she just sits there at the table.

5) The mother knows or suspects something... The thing thrown from the bridge is of some great significance. Something thrown, something thrown by two people. "A girl that looked a lot like you". "She and Billy Joe was throwing somethin".
 

EnolaGaia

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The song appears more mysterious than it was originally intended to be ...

When Gentry originally recorded the demo version (first take) of the song for Capitol Records the lyrics were more extensive (supposedly 11 verses), and that first take ran over 7 minutes in length. The producers' judgment was that this was too long for the intended use as a single, and they instructed Gentry to shorten it. She edited the original set of lyrics down by half to yield the eventual hit version.

Gentry's working lyrics documents (legal pads) are in the library archives at the University of Mississippi. The original demo recording was never released; so far as I know no one's heard it since the recording sessions in 1967.

According to statements Gentry consistently made over the years the original longer lyrics explained more of the story's context, but did not focus or hinge upon whatever it was that was thrown off the Tallahatchie bridge. She was also consistent in claiming that her intended theme was the attitude of the people responding to the news of Billie Joe's death - not the back story to the death itself.
 

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The song probably benefited from a good pruning as it has rather a monotonous tune, and it's the mystery that makes you want to listen harder.

My comment about the tune isn't disapproving, incidentally. I've always thought that its structure conveys very nicely the repressed feelings and conversations of the people in the song. There's something gone on that they're not speaking of. :shock:
 

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This bit always stood out for me -

There was a virus going 'round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything.


She'd always been so busy, organising the family, feeding everyone, having people round for dinner, going out to town and meeting neighbours, but then when she's widowed she sinks into depression. I used to imagine her sitting in a rocking chair, staring into the fireplace. Seemed that her family should've done more to support her instead of letting her decline.

Also, as a child I thought perhaps the preacher had misunderstood what he'd seen on the bridge, and that it was actually Billy Joe himself falling, possibly after a playful or serious fight between him and the narrator.

Gosh, I was a thoughtful child. :lol:
 

dreeness

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It does seem almost like a retelling of Maupassant's "Two Little Soldiers", except told from the point of view of the milkmaid, well sort of like that.

http://www.classicreader.com/book/466/1/

But there is something secret and unspoken, the narrator seems to be saying only as much as she dares to.
 

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What a wonderful writer. Think I first came across him as a child in my dad's copy of Great Tales Of Terror And The Supernatural (which I have praised on here many times!) in the the story Was It A Dream?

Yup, the story could be as simple as that. A person can become suddenly overwhelmed and impulsively kill themselves. Happens a lot.
 

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Not as mysterious as Ode to Billie Joe, but Bobbie also recorded a song called Morning Glory:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dq4Dksv5eg

Which is the only song I can think of which features the singer yawning halfway through (apart from The Yawning Man from Tom Thumb, maybe).
 

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Thanks for that, fascinating woman. As an aside, country radio in the US only plays 8% of records by female singers? That's crazy.
 

Naughty_Felid

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Thanks for that, fascinating woman. As an aside, country radio in the US only plays 8% of records by female singers? That's crazy.
Hey GNC do you ever like anyone else's posts? Enola has done the searching but as usual you never like. What's that all about?
 

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Hey GNC do you ever like anyone else's posts? Enola has done the searching but as usual you never like. What's that all about?
Just never got into the habit. It's nothing personal, I'd just overthink it.
 

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Discussion of the mystery of Ode to Billie Joe on BBC 6Music just there revealed Sinead O'Connor covered it and in the bit of the lyrics about throwing something off the bridge, she dubbed in the sound of a baby crying! Overdoing it a tad, as well as ruining the song's essential mystery. Quite bad taste, too.
 

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I suspect I'm a bad person, but I'm imagining a sound effect somewhat akin to "whaaa, whaaa -- twang wheee .... sploosh" - something from BBC sound effects dept last used for the Goon show....
 

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Part of the atmos & effectiveness of the Bobby Gentry recording I reckon is the minimalism - there's only her voice & nylon string guitar, & great minimal strings. It doesn't need any more & gives it a down home yet off-kilter feel.

From the Rolling Stone article, it was her demo of the song, just her & guitar, originally scheduled as a B side, which someone spotted & later added the strings to. She only did the one version. A few weeks later it was in the charts.
 

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My mom had that record. It always spooked me because it was so slow, hazy and oppressive, like a hot Southern summer day. I hated it and was taken by it at the same time. Now I feel queasy. :sick2:
 
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