RIFFS / Welcome to the big country: Lucinda Williams on Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode To Billy Joe'

AS A country singer it's the lyrics of this that stand out for me. 'Ode to Billy Joe' tells a story in a very conversational way, and it's centred around a family having dinner.

It starts 'It was the third of June / Another sleepy dusty delta day, / I was out chopping cotton / And my brother was baling hay.' It's very Southern, a discussion of events in Mississippi by a farming family at the table, and it's full of Deep South Indian names like Choctaw Ridge and Tallahachee, but there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it; it's very real 1965 country music.

Bobby Gentry doesn't really fit into any comfortable history of country and western, which is one reason to seek her out. She wrote some great songs. This one is weird because it doesn't really have a middle eight or a verse-chorus structure; it's all strung along together. The melody is very bluesy, and the words fit it beautifully. 'Brother Taylor came by today / Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, O by the way . . . ' Every word seems to have several notes hanging on it, and many of them in a minor key, so it doesn't sound at all bright or pretty, and yet the melody has this great sense of movement to it. At the same time it has this great rhythm, it's quite funky.

Someone is remembering this girl's affair with a guy, and someone says how they saw her up at the Tallahachee Bridge with Billy Joe, and that they were throwing something off it. The thing that gives it its power is you never really know what's happened. What's been thrown off the bridge? You start trying to fill in the gaps, thinking maybe she got pregnant. Another of the lines goes 'I'll have another piece of apple pie, / You know it don't seem right.' Real casual.

This great sense of potential horror and darkness builds up beneath what is on the surface of it just mundane dinner-table chatter. Then at the end - and you still don't know what happened - you hear that 'Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahachee Bridge.'

What else is remarkable is that Bobbie Gentry has quite a low voice and sings with this gravelly edge, and yet the song has this musicality to it. The way she stretches out the words, like 'haaay' is lovely, and the lyric just tumbles down, it rolls off the tongue: 'sleepy dusty delta day' - the words are a pleasure to sing.

Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode To Billy Joe' is on 20 Original Country Greats by various artists (Music For Pleasure CDMFP 6004 or CDB 7930072)

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices