RIFFS / Welcome to the big country: Lucinda Williams on Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode To Billy Joe'
Thursday 11 February 1993
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)
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food