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

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The Independent Culture
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)

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