“Ode to Bille Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry
Bobbie Gentry was a famous, beautiful country singer when she emerged in 1967 with her first song. She came from an extremely humble, rural upbringing. She reportedly grew up with no electricity and very few material possessions. It doesn’t get much more rural than Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in the mid-1940s. The one thing she always did have, that no amount of money could buy, was talent.
In the late 1960s, the United States was in the throes of a cultural uproar. Troops were being sent to Vietnam to fight a war that a lot of American’s didn’t think we had any right being involved in. Young people were experiencing with alternative lifestyles and mind-altering drugs; many losing their lives as a result of overdosing. Violent, public and political demonstrations were cropping up around the country.
When Bobbie Gentry hit the music scene with her debut single, Ode to Billie Joe, she was an unknown artist. The lyrics to the song told a story that was mysterious, fascinating and a little eerie. Frequently, country songs will tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Ode to Billie Joe had a beginning and a middle, but no end; or at least no explanation for the end. The mystery surrounding that very song put Gentry on the public’s radar. The week that the song was initially released, it sold approximately 750,000 copies. It went straight to the No. 1 spot on the charts!
Ode to Billie Joe had captivated the country. The song told the story of two young, teen lovers who shared a secret they would take to their graves. One verse, in particular, is the subject of much speculation:
That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, Oh, by the way,
Said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwin' something off the Tallahatchie Bridge
Listeners, not yet even knowing Gentry’s name, were scrambling to come up with the answer to what the couple in the song could have thrown off the bridge. Many speculated that it was a ring or even a baby, but it was never to be revealed. The mystery had baited listeners, and everyone was talking. Soon Bobbie Gentry would be unrecognizable.
The subject and consequences of that dark secret would eventually cause the young boy, Billie Joe McAllister, to commit suicide by jumping off the same bridge. Possibly even sadder than that, the suicide was never really dealt with and the young girl was left to carry being the sole keeper of the secret.
Interestingly enough, in the midst of the unrest in the United States at the time, people still found the energy to obsess over what it could have been that Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend had thrown off the famous Tallahatchie Bridge.
Following her initial success, Bobbie Gentry went on to write and record many other well-known songs. In 1975, she simply dropped out of sight, never released any more songs and still lives as somewhat of a recluse. The manner in which Gentry left the public eye begs the question as to whether or not the song was based on a true mystery. Not long after Gentry's “check out”, a movie by the same title, Ode to Billy Joe, was released (1976).
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