It was the 3rd of June, another sleepy dusty delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay …
In the summer of 1967, there wasn’t anyone listening to AM radio who wasn’t familiar with these opening lines to the #1 hit record “Ode to Billie Joe.” Sung by long-dark-haired Bobbie Gentry of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, the song laid out the mysterious tale of a young man jumping to his death off a river bridge.
But what was the first-person narrator’s part in this drama? In the midst of dinner-table small talk about black-eyed peas and apple pie, “Mama” says to the narrator (Gentry) that the town’s “nice young preacher” saw a girl “that looked a lot like you” up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billy Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchee Bridge.
Rocks? Flowers? A baby? A ring? Nobody knew and everyone speculated. In any case, the combination of Gentry’s sultry vocals, the swamp-soul arrangement and the whodunwhat story were irresistible.
To add another layer of mystique to the song, Bobbie Gentry—who capitalized on its success with TV appearances, her own variety show, a fictional film based on the song (which settled on homosexual panic as the reason for the suicide) and lavish productions in Vegas—went missing 30 years ago. No, she didn’t jump off a bridge: She just took a flying leap off the show-biz train to live an entirely private life.
Try as she might, writer Tara Murtha couldn’t get in touch with Gentry for the wonderful small book she’s written about her, Ode to Billie Joe—part of the remarkable series “33 1/3” from Bloomsbury Press that focuses each volume on a single popular album, from Dusty in Memphis (Dusty Springfield) to Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin) and another 100 in between. But even without a word from Gentry, Murtha adds a lot of pieces to the puzzle of the singer’s songs and her life story.
Best of all, she casts Gentry as a feminist hero of sorts. She says that the “kind souls” who did speak to her about Gentry characterized her as someone who was …
a remarkable businesswoman, and a talented multi-instrumentalist artist. She was ahead of her time in a male-dominated industry in an era when sex appeal helped move product, but could also be a liability for a woman who wanted to conduct her own business. Women wanted me to know that she went out of her way to help other women come up in the industry.
Gentry herself made a feminist statement about one of her follow-up hits, the song “Fancy”—another Southern gothic tale, about a woman prettifying her daughter so she can catch the eye of a rich man who will take her out of her impoverished existence. In one verse, Gentry sings, with her usual attention to small, telling details,
She handed me a heart-shaped locket that said
‘To thine own self be true’
And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across
The toe of my high-heeled shoe
As Gentry was quoted in 1974,
‘Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for—equality, equal pay, day care centers and abortion rights.
She’s an overpowering presence, with her beauty and talent and smarts, not like some swamp nympho or something, [but] sometimes the guys [her musicians] would get that impression from all the makeup and the tight clothes and the huge hair … [but] if you expected that, you were going to get your senses rearranged.
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage