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An Ode to Billie Joe: Fifty years and counting

By Hans Sinha

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day..

Fifty years ago, Bobbie Gentry penned those immortal opening lines to her iconic Southern ballad, Ode to Billie Joe. There are very few songs that are both instantaneously recognizable and have what it takes to send the Fab Four packing, which is what Gentry’s album did upon its release in 1967, knocking the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” from its fifteen-week long reign on top of the charts.

I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay

But the success of the song is only half the story of this anthem to Mississippi life half a century ago. The other half is the mystery surrounding the meaning of the song, and the author, Bobbie Gentry, herself. And as with every American success story, there is a back story, a spirit, and a lesson to be learned.

And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge

Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County on July 27, 1944. She lived with her grandparents, and when her grandmother traded one of their milk cows for a piano — certainly a transaction equal in historical magnitude to Elvis’ mom buying him his first guitar from Tupelo Hardware, Roberta quickly showed her true calling, composing her first song at age seven.

Today Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

By age thirteen, Roberta had moved to California, where in the next decade, she mastered multiple instruments, did modeling work, enrolled to study philosophy at UCLA (hence, maybe, the existential mystery of the meaning of “Ode to Billie Joe”), switched to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, took the stage name Bobbie Gentry, performed in country music venues, and by the tender age of twenty-two, penned her first single, a country-rock tune harking back to her roots entitled “Mississippi Delta.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”

Luckily, that was not, as the saying goes, all she wrote – literally. On the flip side, (and to our youthful readers, in the good old days, the flip side was the opposite side of a record to where the intended hit song was recorded, the A and B sides, so to speak), she recorded “Ode to Billie Joe.” And the rest is history.

I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite

For a decade, Gentry rode the song’s success, recording and performing across the world. The young Chickasaw native had a strong sense of business, managed her own affairs, became part-owner of the Phoenix Suns, married three times, released several additional albums and wrote classics like “Louisiana Man” and “Fancy” (1970), the latter famously covered by Reba McEntire two decades later. Then, after a final 1978 Christmas day performance on The Tonight Show, Gentry vanished. No performances, no songs, no appearances. Just gone.

That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today

The song, however, and the influence of the song, kept growing. Reba covered “Fancy” very much as a feminist empowerment song, as were, in one way or another, Jeannie Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” (1968) and Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn” (1972). It is hard to imagine either of those songs coming to fruition had Bobbie Gentry not paved the way with “Ode to Billie Joe.”  Nor for that matter, Bob Dylan’s “Clothes Line Saga,” a supposed tongue in cheek spoof of Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe included in the Great Bard’s “Basement Tapes” album.

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge

The mystery of what happened to Bobbie Gentry was recently solved when a reporter learned she is living in Memphis, alive and well, and very much a private citizen. The mystery of what was thrown off that bridge into the Tallahatchie River, however, has never been solved, which may precisely be the allure of the song, and the reason behind its infinite timeliness.

And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

The music and the lyrics draw us to the song; the mystery makes it endure. And fortunately, Ms. Gentry never told. Thus, throughout the South, every third of June, on another sleepy dusty Delta day, we can all sit down to dinner, enjoy a meal of black-eyed peas, pass the biscuit, savor some apple pie, and debate what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why.

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

The song, like the songwriter, has an undeniable spirit to it. It was this spirit that spurred, transformed, and guided, a young girl from Chickasaw County to ride the arc of her shooting star. And it is this spirit that provides all of us the lesson from this timeless classic: Roberta Lee Streeter, against all odds, made something not only of herself, but for all of us. She taught us it is possible to dream it, see it, and make it happen. She refused to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, accept that “[m]ost men (sic) lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” On this the fiftieth anniversary of “Ode to Billie Joe,” let us hope we can each do the same.

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Hans Sinha is a Clinical Professor of Law at Ole Miss and a former prosecutor and public defender in New Orleans.