Published On: Wed, Mar 1st, 2017

Paul Sexton – Ode to Billie Joe: The Song That Changed My Life

It’s a long way from the Deep South of the Tallahatchie Bridge to the deep south of Croydon. But when Bobbie Gentry sang the tragic tale of Billie Joe McAllister, and what became of him in a far-off land I’d never heard of before called Mississippi, a young whipper-snapper in suburban south London got hooked on country music like a catfish…

ode to billie joe

Like so many young ’uns in the 60s, growing up with older siblings, my musical education began, from almost as soon as I can remember, in the hands of The Beatles. With national, legal pop radio only just beginning, and 45rpm singles something you had to save up for, you didn’t so much invent your musical identity as imbibe it.

What made that so much fun was the endlessly eclectic nature of the pop charts, which we viewed eagerly through the weekly window into the world of grown-up glamour that was Top Of The Pops. The best-sellers that they featured really did seem to reflect the entire macrocosm of popular music, a world in which Engelbert Humperdinck would do battle with The Supremes, or the Small Faces might be improbably pitted against Nancy Sinatra.

But even though the vast majority of the US country stars of the day, from Loretta Lynn to Buck Owens, had no perceptible audience in the UK, country did sneak past security and into the collective British consciousness on quite a few occasions.

The first such artist I’d have been aware of, sadly in the wake of his tragic death in a plane crash when he was just 40, was Jim Reeves. His drums were perhaps just a bit too distant and soporific, though, and much as one admired the easy-going entertainment charms of Val Doonican, his sometimes country-flavoured hits also felt a bit too pipe-and-slippers, especially for a bairn who’d just had his seven-year-old brain scrambled by I Am The Walrus.

But it was another singer who, like Val, became a fixture of the BBC TV schedules and who brought authentically atmospheric country music into our living rooms. Bobbie Gentry was a beguiling, panda-eyed songstress from genuine Mississippi stock, born an only child in Chickasaw County but with a worldliness informed by a teenage raising in California.

Paul meeting a hero

As the summer of love turned to the autumn of 1967, she burst onto the scene with a debut hit full of the most vivid Southern imagery we Brits had ever clapped ears on.

All these decades later, Ode To Billie Joe remains a fearless piece of Southern Gothic storytelling, with Gentry’s husky voice and spartan acoustic guitar set strikingly to a string arrangement as haunting as her narrative.

Who else has ever had a debut hit with a tale of churches, preachers, choppin’ cotton and the ultimate suicide of the central character? No wonder Capitol Records originally thought that such a challenging song could be nothing more than a B-side.

The story builds with glorious imagery, as Bobbie sings about the time Billie Joe and his friends put a frog down her back at the Carroll County picture show. It throws in details of home cooking, the like of which we’d never heard, about black-eyed peas and biscuits. And she wasn’t talking about Rich Tea, that was for sure.

Then, soon after Billie Joe and his girlfriend (who, we are slowly realising, is the narrator) have mysteriously thrown something into the Tallahatchie River, he jumps off the bridge and does himself in.

The lyric prompted eternal debate about why: what prompted Billie Joe to end his life; but one year on, as the brilliant pocket melodrama concludes, the storyteller just spends her time picking flowers on Choctaw Ridge.

The song was almost too country for country, only reaching the Top 20 of that chart, but it was an American pop smash, spending four weeks atop the Hot 100 and winning multiple Grammys.

In the UK, we welcomed it into the Top 20, then invited Bobbie into our homes. She fronted her own BBC series and guested on many others, leaving me and, no doubt, countless others, as lifetime country devotees.

Almost in keeping with the unfathomable puzzle of the song, Gentry disappeared from public life. Now aged 72, to this day no one quite knows where she is. With similar piquancy, the bridge collapsed in 1972.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit those Southern states on numerous occasions and to spend decades meeting country artists great and small, but nothing will quite compare to first hearing the fatal, mesmerising tale of Billie Joe McAllister.



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