Growing up in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the a.m. radio served up some powerful surprises. It was a totally different, all-consuming thing, this radio and the mysteries it transmitted. Whether it was blasting away in the station wagon or turned down low under the covers at night, the radio promised to take you away and it rarely failed to deliver. It was 180° from today’s “on-demand” world; you’d hang on every word the DJ said and every song he played. Some sent you twirling the knobs, dialing past static in hopes of finding something else … something better. But sometimes, a song came on that just made you sit up and listen real close.
For me, one of those songs was Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” an utterly fascinating piece of Southern Gothic family drama, performed in something that might now be called “alt-country.” It was frighteningly simple — or so it seemed — and told the now-famous tale of Billie Joe McAllister’s date with the Tallahatchee Bridge. This was dark stuff.
Of course the lure of the song was “why did he jump” and “what, exactly, did the young lovers throw off of that bridge.” Each time you heard the song you’d try to glean some new information…something to provide an ending to the story. But, of course, that never happened.
Tara Murtha examines that song and the rest of Bobbie Gentry’s career in Ode To Billie Joe, the latest release in the 33 1/3 series of books. It is a wonderfully compelling book and the best I’ve read in the series since “Television: Marquee Moon.” Perhaps it’s her background as a reporter, but Murtha does not go down the pedantic path that many of the books in this series seem to do lately. Instead, the author presents a fascinating study of Gentry and her career-defining debut. That’s right; “Ode to Billie Joe” was her debut recording. Wow.
As mysterious as the song and its plot line were — and remain — so, too, is the story of its architect. Bobbie Gentry was clearly her own woman, way ahead of her time, and someone who knew how to play the game; if songwriting was her forte, the outfits, choreography and raw sexuality were merely pawns employed to further her game. Gentry put out several more records, none having the reach of “Billie Joe,” and she eventually decamped to Vegas, Hollywood and points beyond. To say her career never matched her landmark debut misses the point; her career would eventually become a total eclipse, apparently of her own choosing.
Murtha weaves in and out of the twin characters of Gentry and her signature song and their murkiness beautifully; Gentry’s career ends completely in mystery much the way Bille Joe’s does and that’s the real hook of the book. What happened? Where did she go...?
Follow me on Twitter: @stevejreviews