Ode to Billie Joe, by Tara Murtha
Foreward by Jill Sobule
"On the fringe of the collective memory of this complex tradition of feminism in the country music world, there's Bobbie Gentry. - Audrey White, The Quietus
To find a local bookstore that carries Ode to Billie Joe, click HERE.
Also available on Amazon
Listen while you read with the Spotify (web player) BOOK SOUNDTRACK: 68 songs sequenced in order they appear in the book
"[Ode to Billie Joe is] a shining example of what the 33 1/3 series should be."
- Eric Banister, MusicTomes
"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 ... 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."
- Randy Lewis, LA Times
"The popular series of pocket books studies iconic rock records, sometimes through straightahead track-by-track descriptions; other times ... they are more abstract ruminations. Murtha takes neither approach, instead presenting a history of Bobbie Gentry as a mysterious and misunderstood artist, analyzed through the lens of the record."
- John Vettese, WXPN The Key
"Murtha adds a lot of pieces to the puzzle of the singer’s songs and her life story.
Best of all, she casts Gentry as a feminist hero of sorts."
- Michele Kort, Ms. Magazine
"Tara Murtha has crafted an accessible, academic study of "Ode to Billie Joe" doubling as a biography of the singer who found tremendous commercial and artistic success for a limited number of years. Speaking to many who worked closest with Gentry, tendrils of information are woven to provide an insightful if necessarily limited portrait of an artist who steadfastly controlled her destiny from the time she appeared on the Los Angeles music scene until she disappeared from the Las Vegas stages... Murtha has provided a concise and easy to appreciate portrait of an assertive, visionary performer."
- Donald Teplyske, Country Standard Time
"I wrote one of the first 33 1/3 books. Tara Murtha's new one is a treasure trove for Bobbie Gentry fans. Good work."
- Andy Miller, author The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society & The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life
"The new book written by Philadelphia journalist Tara Murtha for the long-running 33 1/3 album dissection series is a compelling reminder of just how lively pop culture analysis can be. In what she calls an “investigative pop history” of the career of Bobbie Gentry, best known for her song and album titled Ode to Billie Joe, Murtha moves from subjects as diverse as agricultural economics in the Southern US to the growth of a Hawaiian music scene in California."
- Austin Nolen, The Declaration
"[Ode to Billie Joe] is a wonderfully compelling book and the best I’ve read in the series since “Television: Marquee Moon.” Perhaps it’s her background as a reporter, but Murtha does not go down the pedantic path that many of the books in this series seem to do lately. Instead, the author presents a fascinating study of Gentry and her career-defining debut."
- Stephen Erlewine, AllMusicBooks
"This Bobbie Gentry book by Tara Murtha is as evocative and detailed as her music. I'm slightly disappointed she had Yorkshire terriers."
- Bob Stanley, musician & author Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
"While Murtha's exploration of the Gentry myth is fascinating, the writer also takes pains to ensure that the myth - as well as Gentry's sexual aura - will not eclipse her real achievements ... Murtha's gem of a book is, above all, a testament to the enduring complexity of Bobbie Gentry."
- Helen W. Mallon, Philadelphia Inquirer
"[This title] certainly has real gravitas... Murtha, a reporter from Philadelphia who consistently turns out tough, insightful articles that are often staunchly feminist, seems a good candidate for cracking the case. She digs up rare performance footage and interviews everyone from step-brothers to session musicians, soon discovering that a more apt question is, not where, but who is Bobbie Gentry?"
- Katie Haegele, Utne Reader
"In Ode To Billie Joe, a new contribution to Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series, journalist Tara Murtha puts Gentry's feminism and efforts to control her own image at the center of the work, which re-introduces the world to Bobbie Gentry."
- Audrey White, The Quietus
M O R E N E W S
Read about Ode to Billie Joe in the LA Times
I talked Ode to Billie Joe (and listened to some covers) w/ Marty Moss-Coane for
NPR/WHYY's Radio Times, archived here
Read an interview & excerpt in Wondering Sound
Read an annotated excerpt at Country Genius/Lit Genius, featuring the Bettye LaVette anecdote I chopped out of the book for now-mysterious reasons
Billboard wisely selected Ode to Billie Joe as a hot gift pick for music lovers
"Searching for Bobbie Gentry: Tara Murtha and a team of Philly musicians explore Ode to Billie Joe"
Producer/bassist Phil D'Agostino assembled an 11-piece band featuring 5 singers called The Lower 40 to re-create Ode to Billie Joe in concert to celebrate the release of my book in Philadelphia
WHYY/NPR produced a beautiful radio piece about Ode to Billie Joe and The Lower 40
WXPN hosted The Lower 40 for the Free at Noon concert at World Cafe Live in December, 2014. Did you miss the show? Don't fret, you can listen to archived audio
Rock photog Lisa Schaffer shot the Free at Noon concert w/ typically beautiful results, you can check out photos and admire beehive 'dos here
Read an interview with Phil D'Agostino, the producer/musician & The Lower 40 bandleader
My favorite anecdote not in the book: I wrote about the unlikely backstory of this 1962 photo
of Bobbie Gentry with Cheryl Crane
Q&A with Stanley Dorfman, producer of Bobbie Gentry's BBC variety show that ran from 1968 - 1971
Meet the Michigan firefighter who believes Billie Joe McAllister may have been inspired by his father's cousin Billy
I had a great time talking Bobbie Gentry with musician Adam Brodsky on the Rhymes Against Humanity podcast
Remembering Jess Rand at Wondering Sound
Ode to Billie Joe was chosen as one of "10 Great Music Reads" in the Times-Picayune
An interview with the author at 33 1/3
Philly writer Tara Murtha takes on the legend of Bobbie Gentry at WXPN's The Key
Thank you to the 215 Festival for a great night
A B O U T T H E B O O K
“Ode To Billie Joe,” the number-one hit off Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 album of the same name, is deceptively simple. We hear a cascade of fingerpicked chords lifted by the swells and sighs of strings, and then a sultry, smoky voice steeped in the dark sweet tea of the South begins: “It was a third of June, another sleepy dusty Delta day. I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay.” As she gets closer to revealing the bad news, Gentry's voice tightens like a snake on a tree branch as she delivers the famous line: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Though she hasn't performed in more than three decades, fans find it impossible to forget Bobbie Gentry—a beautiful, soulful singer with chiseled cheekbones, thick slashes of black eyeliner and a stage presence and dance moves that made one writer describe her as having a "body which moves like an insolent, urgent, hungry panther."
Not bad for a multi-instrumentalist who always considered herself, at heart, a writer.
As one of the first women to write, perform and produce her own material, Gentry broke both creative and business barriers. Gentry was a total unknown when she created an album so popular that Capitol Records pre-ordered the largest number of units in its history--five times more than the record set in 1964 with Meet the Beatles. She was the first woman to host a variety show on the BBC and the first woman inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame. Her song lyrics, Southern Gothic at its finest, are most often compared to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. She ran her own production companies, personally signing every paycheck every week.
After leaving the record industry in the early 1970s, Gentry focused on her award-winning stage shows in Vegas, where she did everything from leading the band to designing the costumes. She was known for mounting the most elaborate shows with the most feverish pace--and of course for her legendary tribute to Elvis, where the Delta Queen emulated the King so well that Presley urged his own audience to go see Bobbie's show. She broke showroom attendance records while, behind the scenes, she negotiated her own contracts, including the highest-paying contract in Vegas history at the time.
And then, after more than a decade as one of the biggest names in show business, the stage went black. Now, Bobbie Gentry has not appeared or performed in public in more than three decades.
But what fans can't forget, of course, is the impossibly sexy swivel and glittering showgirlship of a performer who could make air boil with nothing more than a parlor Martin guitar and a voice low as the Mississippi moon.
Almost fifty years after it was recorded, fans still wonder what it was that was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in "Ode to Billie Joe."
Murtha set out to explore the real mystery buried within the song's mystery, and found the waters got murkier the deeper she dove. Just as fans believe that finding out what was thrown off the bridge will lead to knowing why Billie Joe jumped, Murtha argues that by piecing together the true story behind "Ode to Billie Joe," we can finally begin to get a full view of the remarkable accomplishments Gentry made in her short career and begin to understand her long silence.
Relying on original research including extensive interviews, never-before-seen footage of Gentry's Vegas performances and assorted memorabilia, Murtha traces the much-disputed origin "Ode to Billie Joe" while assembling a portrait of an artist ahead of her time.
Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe was published by Bloomsbury Academic's critically
acclaimed 33 1/3 Books series December 18, 2014