Money, Mississippi, has a population of about 100. The settlement is famous for two things. One is real: in 1955, a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, was lynched, a murder referred to in songs by The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan. The other is fictional: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”.
An atmospheric production that mixed country music with funky R&B, “Ode to Billie Joe” is an enigma. Its storyline is clear enough; some of the details are not. Billie Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money into the river below and, over dinner, a family offer opinions about their deceased acquaintance. Gentry sings of apple pie, cutting cotton, a prank involving frogs and, eventually, the death of the family’s father from a virus. Gradually the closeness of the song’s narrator to Billie Joe becomes apparent; she and Billie had been seen throwing something off the bridge on the day before he leapt to his death.
Exactly what, is left to the listener’s imagination. At the end of the song, the narrator whiles away time throwing something else from the bridge: flowers, a lament to Billie Joe, her lost, unspoken love.
“Ode to Billie Joe” had started as an eight-minute acoustic epic, scheduled as the B-side of Gentry’s debut single before Capitol Records realised its potential. The song had almost half its length excised, and Jimmie Haskell’s edgy, swooping strings did nothing to impinge on the understated atmosphere of Gentry’s song. Its juxtaposition of banalities against profound loss struck a chord in the America of 1967, which was keeping up appearances while fighting in Vietnam, watching its leaders being assassinated, and coping with change wrought by the civil rights movement. It was the US’s third biggest-selling single of the year. Gentry was repeatedly asked what had been thrown from the bridge — a ring, a baby? She shrugged: “Everybody has a different guess.”
Gentry’s song triggered copycat leaps from the Tallahatchie Bridge. The wooden structure was 6m high, so the fall was unlikely to kill unless the river was in flood. The authorities, tired of sorting out the mess, introduced a bylaw that fined jumpers $100.
The haunting feel of “Ode to Billie Joe” attracted sax players. Lou Donaldson and Willis Jackson both covered it, losing out to King Curtis, who scored a top 30 US hit with a wailing cover, just months after the original was issued. Tommy McCook, a Jamaican saxophonist, gave Curtis’s template a gentle rocksteady-styled makeover in 1968.
Singers also offered tributes to Billie Joe. Gentry was ahead of the “rebel-country” movement and fellow insurgent Lee Hazlewood was an early adopter of her song in 1967. Motown trio The Supremes cooed it; southern soul star Joe Tex, who loved to talk through story songs, was cut out for it. One of the most interesting interpretations was by Joe Dassin, a French vocalist who retitled it “Marie-Jeanne”, reversing the sexes and setting it amid vineyards rather than cotton fields. Bob Dylan wrote a parody, “Clothes Line Saga”, and Roger White (actually country star Johnny Paycheck) offered “Mystery Of Tallahatchie Bridge”, which attempted to fill perceived gaps. In 1976, a movie, Ode to Billy Joe, had the titular character making his jump after a gay sexual experience. Perhaps this Hollywood cliché was too much for the poor fella.
Bobbie Gentry showed no interest in filling in her song’s details. She said it was about “the basic indifference, the casualness of people in moments of tragedy”. Perhaps tired of being associated with one composition, the talented composer retired in 1981 at the age of 37 and has not appeared in public since. As if unable to bear the weight of its cultural significance, the original Tallahatchie Bridge at Money collapsed in 1972, after it was set alight by vandals.
For a podcast version with clips from the songs, ft.com/artspodcast
For more in the series, ft.com/life-of-a-song