MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Bobbie Gentry: Ode To Billie Joe
Capitol Records, 1967
In the summer of 1967, a relative newcomer to the Los Angeles music scene, a talented songwriter and part-time fashion model named Bobbie Gentry, was hoping to at least score a job writing songs for other artists, and recorded a demo for a captivating Southern Gothic narrative song with a sparse swamp-folk arrangement she called, “Ode To Billie Joe,” playing the guitar and singing it herself because she couldn’t afford to pay anybody else. The song would go on to become a #1 hit on the Billboard charts for four weeks, also reaching #5 on the Black Billboard chart, and stayed in the charts for twenty weeks. The song was a first person narrative, told from a young woman’s point of view, about a Billie Joe McCallister who commits suicide by throwing himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi. The girl is sister to a boy who was one of Billie’s friends and she and her family spend the next year trying to sort out exactly what happened to Billie but face their own tragedy near the end of the song with the father dying of a “virus goin’ round” and her mom not wanting “to do much of anything.” Later, Bobbie Gentry would claim the song was about “casual indifference in moments of great tragedy.”
Like the audience who adored this song in the ‘60s I was smitten with Bobbie Gentry ever since I heard this song and saw this album cover. I can’t even remember where I first heard it, it could’ve been one of my deep dives into Southern Gothic arcana stoked by my love for the literary genius of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy. I loved the simple acoustic guitar that brings to mind listening to folk tales on the porch of an old ramshackle house in the countryside. When I was a kid, where I grew up in Lakeside was less of a suburb and more of an Old West town, with dairies all over so that cows dotted the hillsides, and horse ranches. I attribute my affinity for this type of folklore to stories I heard growing up there.
I found this record on vinyl for a dollar a few years ago and I had already read praise for Gentry’s songwriting in different magazines when this was re-issued some years back, so I was stoked. When I took it home and put the needle on the record my eager anticipation was instantly rewarded: the first song, “Mississippi Delta” had me floored from the get-go with its swamp-funk guitar riff, the fuzzy organ bass-skronk, and the way she sings with a throaty rasp, “M-I double S-I double S-I double P-I!” It’s a masterpiece I could imagine inspiring the late Tony Joe White of “Polk Salad Annie” fame, whose career was just beginning around that time. To go from that to the bucolic jazz-folk beauty of “An Angel Died,” (called, “I Saw An Angel Die” in other editions) and “Chickasaw County Child,” I knew I had found a special record, with countrified seasonings of blues, jazz, and folk and exquisite string and brass arrangements tastefully swirled about, courtesy of Jimmie Haskell. Her voice is absolutely alluring, sometimes a sexy lowdown rasp, or a floating half-spoken country rap way ahead of its time (“Papa Won’t You Take Me To Town With You,”) other times an angelic doo-wop-like high falsetto,(“Niki Hoeky”) always accompanied by the buoyant minimalist acoustic guitar, creating a feeling as if she wrote all these songs just sitting on her porch. Honestly, this album is so magical it is hard to put all the flavor of this delicious gumbo into words.The songs feel hewn from the same earthen realm of the title track, folktales cut from the same wooded hollers and river so as to give it the feel of a concept record. Seeing as how Bobbie Gentry is no longer a household name I’d even say it’s severely underrated. THIS ALBUM IS A ‘MUST-CHECK-OUT.’ Hell, if I could, I’d guarantee 100% satisfaction with this album. It’s THAT GOOD.