Bobbie Gentry, the pioneering but reclusive country star who captured the world’s attention with her mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe,” turns 71 years old today. In honor of her birthday, we revisit her enduring, 1967 masterpiece.
A sparse, finger-picked ballad whose plot has never been fully explained, “Ode to Billie Joe” hooked listeners on a riddle that remains to this day. Full of tragedy and cruel indifference, the song was written and produced by Gentry herself – a rare thing at the time – and created a cultural lightning bolt in the midst of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War.
More of a short story set to music than a song, the track places Gentry as a Mississippi farm girl who comes in from a day’s chores to learn that a local boy, Billie Joe, has apparently committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. No one at the family dinner table seems to care much and they mostly continue on with their meal — except the girl, who appears to lose her appetite. Between mouthfuls of black eyed peas and second helpings of pie, the mother seems to think the boy was up to no good. Her father only cares about getting the rest of his field plowed, and her brother recalls Billie Joe as his friend – one whom he remembers flirted with the narrator once — but still doesn’t care enough to react.
It’s then revealed that the night before he died, a local preacher saw Billie Joe with a girl who looked just like the narrator throwing something from the very same bridge. Even so, hard questions go unasked, and life goes on. Eventually the brother moves away and the father dies, leaving the mother despondent and the girl to occasionally toss flowers from the spot where Billie Joe jumped.
Something has clearly happened between Billie Joe and the narrator, but Gentry’s genius was to never share the details. What did they throw from the bridge? Was it a wedding ring, a draft card. . . a pregnancy test? And how did that lead Billie Joe to take his own life?
Gentry’s original version of the song stretched to seven minutes long and included 11 verses but was cut for radio play, so any extra details lie with the singer, and she isn’t talking. After taking the song to Number One on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, knocking the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the top spot on the albums chart and winning three Grammy awards, Gentry began avoiding public life in the early Eighties and still does so today. She’s always understood the gravity and magic of “Ode to Billie Joe,” though, and has done the musical world a favor by not sharing what really happens. The mystery is far more interesting than any revelation could hope to be.
“Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind,” she says in the book, Ode to Bobbie Gentry. “The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people’s reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and, later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.”