“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day…”
The summer of 1967 belonged to The Beatles, The Doors, and Bobbie Gentry, who was all of 23 years old when her debut album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the charts, where it had been the number one album for months. Her album’s namesake song, “Ode to Billie Joe”, also replaced “All You Need is Love” in the number one spot on the singles chart.
One of pop music’s most haunting songs, the Southern Gothic “Ode to Billie Joe” started Bobbie’s career off with a bang. The story of a suicide set deep in the Mississippi delta, the track raises more questions than it answers: Why did Billie Joe McAlister jump off the Tallahatchee bridge? What was the nature of his relationship with the song’s narrator, who hears the news of his death from her too-casual family members around the dinner table? For her part, Bobbie has always maintained that the mysteries surrounding the song are not the point; for her, the core of the story is in the nonchalant description of the suicide by the family around the dinner table, and the abject cruelty of this discussion in the presence of Billie Joe’s girlfriend. As a piece of writing, the song is brilliant—the plot advances solely through dialogue, and there’s enough richness of character to make Carson McCullers jealous. The arrangement, stark and absolutely chilling in places, ensured its stand-out status, while Bobbie’s husky voice sang a melody that seemed to have written itself.
The Ode to Bille Joe album featured ten songs, nine of them authored by Bobbie Gentry. It invited listeners into the world of the midcentury south—hot, hazy, and populated with interesting characters. There were songs about bugs, dressing up in one’s sunday best, going to town at the end of a hard work week, and overcoming poverty. Bobbie wrote these songs from her own experiences.
Born in Mississippi in 1944, Bobbie was raised by her grandparents on their farm. When she showed an early interest in music, her grandmother traded a cow to their neighbor in exchange for a piano, which Bobbie used to write her first song at age seven. She later taught herself to play guitar, bass, and banjo, before moving to Las Vegas to become a showgirl. From Vegas, she travelled to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in UCLA and began performing her songs in night clubs. When a producer heard her demo recordings in 1967, she snagged a record deal.
Set up for super stardom after the success of “Ode to Billie Joe”, Bobbie promptly began writing and producing songs for her second album, The Delta Sweete. When it was released in 1968, it barely charted, despite containing high-quality songs. This set the pattern for the rest of her career, as her subsequent albums never repeated the triumph of her first. She fared slightly better on the country charts, although no matter which chart she landed on she was always labeled a “crossover”—a little too pop for the country sphere, her Mississippi twang rendered her hopelessly exotic in the pop world. Finally, in 1970, Bobbie hit the Top 40 again with “Fancy”, a song she referred to as her “strongest statement for women’s lib.” The tale of a girl in dire poverty, turned out by her mother to work as a call girl, the song would be resurrected twenty years later and turned into a massive hit by Reba McEntire. Bobbie’s version of the tune is, as always, more harrowing and leaves the listener feeling unsettled.
Shortly after the relative success of “Fancy”, Bobbie retired from the music business and now lives a quiet life in California. Her legacy— six albums of exquisite stories and character sketches— is largely neglected today. But one listen to songs such as “Casket Vignette”, “Courtyard”, “Seasons Come, Seasons Go”, and “Papa’s Medicine Show” reveals a supremely gifted writer in the vein of Eudora Welty. It’s possible that her songs and skills are continually overlooked by people who are more likely to notice her beauty, her miniskirts and her now-kitschy bouffant hairstyle. An adept musician and producer, she was ahead of her time during the span of her career. And, thanks to Bobbie Gentry, it is possible to put on a record and be instantly transported into a vivid, fascinating world called the Mississippi delta.