Sometimes a song arrives so perfectly formed that its difficult to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist. And sometimes a song becomes so iconic that it overshadows the artist that created and performed it. I think both of those things apply to this classic.
Ode To Billy Joe is a song, like You’re So Vain or American Pie, that has created a huge amount of debate, discussion and speculation. Originally the b-side to her debut single, Mississippi Delta, Ode… started picking up US airplay and eventually topped the charts there. It’s sparse sound was a contrast to the country rock sound of Mississippi Delta, but it is the enigmatic lyrics that have given the song its long-lasting mystique. Exactly what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Why did Billie Joe commit suicide? I’m not going to add to the debate that has ensued endlessly since the songs original release (see here and here for a flavour of that) – suffice to say it is one of those debates that will run and run.
Gentry never really eclipsed this performance (hard to see how that could be possible) despite a series of classy releases. She had continued success in the late 60s and early 70s, but effectively dropped off the public radar by 1972 to focus on television production work, and disappeared entirely from public life in the early 1980s, lending to her own life a degree of the mystery that surrounded this her most iconic song.
There’s not much to say about the song sheet. It’s a simple set of blues-flavoured chords. Just keep the rhythm simple and sparse, and it will sound great.
P.S. I love this photo (below) of Bobbie Gentry crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge