“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.”
It's impossible to forget the woman herself—a beautiful, soulful singer with chiseled cheekbones, thick slashes of black eyeliner and moves that made male music describe her as having a "body which moves like an insolent, urgent, hungry panther." She starred in her own television shows, hosted a popular radio program on Armed Forces Radio and ruled Vegas. Fans can't forget 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.
Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe will be published by Bloomsbury Academic's acclaimed 33 1/3 Books series in 2014.
1/16/13: Read an interview with the author here.
1/17/13: Read "Hidden Treasures: Bobbie Gentry, The Delta Sweete" in the Guardian here.
11/14/13: Bobbie Gentry is honored with a marker on the Mississippi Country Music Trail in Greenwood, MS.