TOP TEN COUNTDOWN – THE “STORY SONG” (Toughest gig in songwriting) # 2

Posted: September 1, 2012 by Dale Nickey in List

(Click here for parts 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and 1)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Number 2 …..

Ode To Billy Joe – Bobbie Gentry (1967)

Southern Gothic meets Twin Peaks. Just as circle jerks around the water cooler in 1990 proffered theories on ‘who killed Laura Palmer?’ So did we muse and ponder in 1967 exactly what the hell it was that Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? It was such an enigma that a feature length movie was produced based on the lyrics to the song.

In many ways, Bobbie Gentry was the Kate Bush of her time and place. Like Bush, Gentry was a white hot classic brunette with a lot going on under the hood. She was one of the first female country music artists to pen her own material (Kate was the first Brit female to pen a number 1).  And, after the hoopla and lucre generated by “Ode”, Gentry began a slow but sure retreat from celebrity. By the late 70’s had removed herself from the harsh spotlight of performing and had chosen the soft afterglow of domesticity (ala’ Kate).

 “Ode To Billy Joe” is a humid, steamy invocation of rural, Deep South culture.  Gentry’s near Bossa Nova guitar plucking has the thick, stagnant funk of swamp gas on a hot, August Delta night.   The string arrangement is as greasy as bacon drippings. Gentry obviously embodied small town Southern culture,  yet crafted ‘Ode..’ with a narrative punch that should remind us that our perception of the double- wide, cousin humpin’ Deep South (formed by a thousand Deliverance jokes) must also include towering literary icons like Falkner, Twain and Tennessee Williams.  Rooted deep in the saga of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ is agrarian plantation society – although built on the backs of conscripted humanity- it still gave us a culture rich in art, architecture and a certain ironic civility we call Southern hospitality.


The story is set around the dinner table. The news is disseminated that local boy Billy Joe has jumped to his death off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Ominous plot points and mundane family chatter are intermingled as the chronology of events slowly unfolds:  

 Papa said to mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense,
pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.

Exotic theories abounded regarding the various unanswered mysteries imbedded in the song. Gentry wisely never made any attempt to explain or reveal them. Her masterpiece had been painted; never again to be equaled or duplicated.

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  1. Patti Hurlbut says:

    This song always intrigued me. What did they throw off the bridge? The dinnertable conversation shows how unaffected everyone was by the news…except her. There was some conspiracy about her & Billy Joe. Did they kill someone and throw them off the bridge? I just heard this song again recently listening with my friend and she said “They threw a baby off the bridge”. So did Billy Joe get her pregnant and they got rid of the baby with a back street abortion and threw it in the river? Who knows? Whatever, looks like Billy Joe couldn’t live with himself, and she still mourns for him. A great song and a great story, mostly because the mystery will never be solved.

    • Dale Nickey says:

      I’m showing my age but, I do remember how this song captured the imagination of everybody. Parents, schoolmates, media….. I think the film indicated some homosexual encounter that prompted Billy Joe to off himself. However, the author Bobbie Gentry never told us the meaning of the song…..which increased it’s lifespan I think…..

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  11. [...] (Click here for Parts 10, 9, 8, 7,  6, 4, 3, 2 and 1) [...]

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