Love was in the air in the summer of 1967, and it was all over the radio waves as well, from the Doors’ horny exhortation to a love interest in “Light My Fire” to the Beatles’ philosophically minded anthem “All You Need is Love.”
In the midst of such physically and philosophically feel-good explorations of the many facets of love came one mysterious tale of a star-crossed love that seemed to end badly for all concerned: Bobbie Gentry’s Southern gothic tale of doomed romance, “Ode to Billie Joe.”
It was a massive hit, pushing “All You Need Is Love” out of the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart after just one week and holding on to the top spot for a full month. The richly descriptive narrative charts the suicide of a young man shortly after he and a young woman are spotted throwing something off a bridge into the river below:
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay;
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat,
And Mama hollered at the back door, “Y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
Then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Philadelphia journalist Tara Murtha has dug deep into the story behind Gentry’s song with the latest entry in the “33 1/3” book series devoted to various pop albums of significance.
A big part of Murtha’s short book, published Dec. 18 by Bloomsbury Academic, revolves around Gentry’s unexpected retreat from the music business more than 30 years ago, after she’d released a handful of albums and parlayed the success of her recordings into a high-profile stint as a Las Vegas headliner and a host of short-lived TV series in the United States and England.
“There are many theories on her disappearance, just as numerous as there are interpretations of ‘Ode’s’ lyrics,” singer, songwriter and Gentry devotee Jill Sobule writes in the book’s introduction. (Sobule herself wrote a 2009 song titled “Where Is Bobbie Gentry?”) “But they’re mainly focused on where she has retired. There is no whispering of rehab, rare disease, murder or anything. No conspiracy theory.”
Murtha, like Sobule and numerous others, reached out to Gentry while working on the book, and like most others, got no response.
The lack of direct contact helped Murtha decide how to approach the task of exploring and telling the story of Gentry’s birth in 1942 in Chickasaw County, Miss., her childhood in Greenwood, Miss., and her lesser-known years in Southern California, where she developed her songwriting and performance skills as a teenager. She was later signed to Capitol Records on the strength of “Ode to Billie Joe," which she also wrote and produced.
“I’d been interested in writing something lengthy about Bobbie Gentry for a while,” Murtha told Pop & Hiss. “To that end, I did a larger project fleshing out the idea of a book about her and her career as part of a graduate school assignment for my master's in publishing" at Rosemont College, near Philadelphia.
“Doing that made me realize that the ‘33 1/3’ series would be the ideal format for this book,” she said. “I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was to write a traditional biography of an unwilling participant.”
Murtha charts Gentry’s challenges as a musician who in her teens was most interested in selling her songs to other singers, not recording them herself. But once she did get into the position of recording, she was up against a male-dominated record industry that offered little validation to a young woman with her own ideas about performance and production.
“It surprised me how many people were willing to take credit for her work,” Murtha said. “In theory, that’s not surprising, but after talking to several people in a row, and hearing each of them say they discovered her, that was a surprise.”
Murtha also unearthed biographer's gold when she came across a collector who was looking to sell several Super 8 films of Gentry performing in the years after “Ode to Billie Joe” made her a star.
“About 90% of them had audio,” Murtha said. “Hearing her directly addressing the persona issues” -- the popular myth at the time that she was a rural country singer who “stepped out of the swamp fog” of Mississippi directly into the pop spotlight -- “that had been my sense, but not having spoken to her, I was surprised about her being so explicit. She was trying to transcend the ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ persona.”
That leads Murtha to the conclusion that perhaps the salient question isn't "Where is Bobbie Gentry?" but "Who was Bobbie Gentry?"
Murtha’s view is that she “was essentially a pop composer who explored Southern themes, rather than a country singer. So I was a little nervous when the book came out -- I was worried that country fans would be offended by that."
She said in the weeks since “Ode to Billie Joe” was published, however, she’s gotten mostly positive feedback -- from readers and from the sources she interviewed.
But still, predictably, nothing from the book’s elusive subject.
Murtha confesses that she still holds out hope that at some point Gentry will call, even though she documents in the book the many examples of Gentry reaching out to friends, producers or others with hints of returning to music, only to repeatedly decline to follow up on the idea.
“I do hope,” Murtha said with a laugh. “I’ll keep my phone’s ringer on a little more now than I used to. I do respect her privacy, but I also sense that there seems to be some tension between her wanting to maintain full radio silence, and her interest in her legacy. She does make phone calls and sets up appointments with people from time to time, but always cancels them. So maybe one day the mood will strike.”
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