This song tells the story of the fictional Billie Joe McAllister, who kills himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. There really is a Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi, but Gentry made up the story.
The Tallahatchie Bridge, which spans the Tallahatchie River, collapsed in 1972, but was later rebuilt.
In this song, a family finds out about the death of Billie Joe and shares gossip about him at the dinner table along with their other mundane concerns. Bobbie Gentry explained: "The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. The song is a study in unconscious cruelty."
The message in the song would become even more relevant in the digital age when social networks and other tools made it easy to comment on newsworthy events. It quickly became clear that there were many folks who lacked empathy for suffering that didn't directly affect them, and these people now had many forums to share their opinions.
Gentry was familiar with the Tallahatchie Bridge since she was born and raised in Mississippi, where she grew up in a home without electricity. She learned to sing in church and her family got her a piano to nurture her musical talents. At age 13, she moved with her mother to Palm Springs, California, and in the ensuing years performed locally taking the stage name Bobbie Gentry (her birth name: Roberta Lee Streeter - she chose the name after seeing Ruby Gentry, a 1952 movie with Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston).
After graduating high school, she studied at UCLA, and during this time sent a demo tape of this song to Capitol Records. The demo was just her voice and an acoustic guitar, but Capitol was so impressed that they signed her to a deal.
The song was recorded in July, 1967 at Capitol's Los Angeles studios. Gentry basically re-created her demo, singing and playing guitar. Jimmie Haskell, who did the arrangement, added a small string section - two cellos and four violins - and the song was done. Haskell decided against a rhythm section to preserve the cinematic quality of the song.
When Record Mirror asked Gentry in 1967 what was thrown from the bridge at the end of this song, she replied: "It's entirely a matter of interpretation as from each individual's viewpoint. But I've hoped to get across the basic indifference, the casualness, of people in moments of tragedy. Something terrible has happened, but it's 'pass the black-eyed peas', or 'y'all remember to wipe your feet.'"
A movie with the title spelled Ode to Billy Joe was released in 1976. The film was based on this song, Gentry re-recorded it for the soundtrack. This turned out to be some of Gentry's last work high-profile work, as she disappeared from the public eye soon after.
The re-released version of the song charted at #54, and the main title from the film - also composed by Gentry, made #65.
Along with the mystery man in "You're So Vain
," what Billie Joe throws off the bridge before he jumps is one of the great questions in Pop music. Many people speculated that it was a baby, which led to his suicide. In the movie, he throws over a rag doll and jumps because he thinks he might be gay.
Gentry insists that what he throws over the bridge isn't important, and to fixate on that is to miss the point of the song - that we often respond to tragic events with cruel dissociation.
Released as Gentry's first single, this song topped the US chart for four weeks in 1967, knocking The Beatles "All You Need Is Love
" out of the top spot. The Ode To Billy Joe
album would also top the chart, displacing The Beatles' Sgt Pepper
after its 15 week run at #1.
Gentry won the Best New Artist Grammy the year this was released. The song also won the awards for Best Vocal Performance, Female; Best Arrangement Accompanying A Vocalist Or Instrumentalist; and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance.
Later in 1967, an instrumental version by The Kingpins hit #28 in the US. Ray Bryant also released a version that year that made #89.
The Beach Boys did a reply to this song called "Ode to Betty Joe" on their album Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 20 (1968-1969), released with the song "It's Time." The two songs are not Beach Boys recordings, but performed by a comedy and musical group hired by the Beach Boys called the Pickle Brothers (the support group for the Beach Boys' live performances). The two songs later became recorded, pressed, and presumably vended at concerts. (thanks, Brandon - Seattle, WA)
Running 4:13, this song was longer than most hits of the era, and the longest #1 of 1967.
This song had an impact on the Country chart, going to #17. The following year, Gentry teamed up with Glenn Campbell to release an album of duets called Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, which went to #1. She had a few more minor hits, including "Okolona River Bottom Band" (#54), but "Ode To Billie Joe" is by far her best-known work.
When this became a hit, Rolling Stone magazine reported that it was only a 20-foot drop off the bridge and the water was deep enough so you would not get hurt. Of course, lots of people went to the bridge and jumped, which drove the local police nuts.
Rosanne Cash's 2014 album The River & the Thread
shows her standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge, which she visited on a trip to the South where she collected song ideas for the album. "In my mind the Tallahatchie Bridge was enormous, but it's just a little modest bridge over this little Tallahatchie River," she told us
. "Nobody there. We sat on the bridge for a half an hour and one car went by."
Cash included Ode To Billie Joe in her live set around this time.