Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ode to Ode to Billy Joe

One song from the 1960s that has never lost its power and mystery for me is Bobbie Gentry's oddball 1967 hit "Ode to Billy Joe."
Bobbie on the Tallahatchie Bridge

If you weren't around back then, it's the story of a young girl who learns about the apparent suicide of her friend (boyfriend?) in a casual dinner conversation as her family passes around the black-eyed peas. Details of the death emerge between bits and pieces of other increasingly oppressive small talk.

One tidbit seems especially ominous. The narrator's mother said that a preacher had mentioned that he thought he saw Billy Joe and the girl throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge -- the same bridge from which Billy Joe lept to his death the next day.

Greil Marcus wrote in Invisible Republic:  

The singer is like the woman who walks the hills in "Long Black Veil": she knows why Billie Joe went to his death, she knows what they threw into the black water, but not only will she not tell, no one around the table even thinks to ask. There is a meal to get over with, there is work to be done. So not a voice is raised or even inflected. Billie Joe’s suicide rests on the same moral; plane as the black-eyed peas on the table. Everything is flat. Everything is quiet. Outside the kitchen window camped an entire country, listening in. ,

The question "What did they throw off the bridge?" haunted America for months to come. Gentry herself once said:

 "The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important."

"Ode to Billy Joe" was covered by a wide range singers in a variety of styles. I'll start with a version by Bobbie and follow with some of my favorites.

King Curtis made it funky

The song is a natural for Sinead.

Here's a twangy instrumental take from a band called Nashville West, which included Clarence White and Gene Parsons (both would later become Byrds) and Gib Gilbeau.

(It looks like you might need to have Spotify to listen to the next two)

I saw Joe Tex lipsynch his version of "Ode" on American Bandstand in the late '60s. As much as I love the atmospherics of the original, Tex's irreverent take is priceless. As a wise-ass kid myself, it made me want to spit watermelon seeds off the Tallahatchie Bridge myself.

And speaking of irreverent, Bob Dylan wrote a parody of sorts.

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