The song seeped into me in the years of my growing up and it has never left. I know now that it came out here in the late summer of 1967. But without looking it up I couldn’t have told you if it came out then or in 1968 or 69. It was simply around, telling its partial story about something going on “off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
The song is in my bones now, all these years later, and I recognise it as one of several story songs from around then that intrigued me by not quite telling me their stories, by letting me in on the edge of them and leaving it at that. The other main ones being ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ by Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield and ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb. Every one of them coming with me to a Desert Island one of these days.
But it’s ‘Ode to Billie Jo’ by Bobbie Gentry that’s been on my mind this week.
I’ve never owned the record until now, I could sing you every word of it anyway. But this week I finally came home with it from the Oxfam down the road, put it on the record player like a ceremony, and a rainy day in Liverpool became a sultry afternoon in the Mississippi Delta.
“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door, y’all, remember to wipe your feet
And then she said, I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
Bobbie Gentry was all over the place back in those late 1960s, like a real star. Coming out out of the Binatone transistor radio I’d got for passing my 11-plus, permanently tuned as it was to Radio Caroline. Then getting her own television series soon after BBC2 got invented and they made space for her, Dusty Springfield, Glen Campbell and even Scott Walker. I grew up with a soundtrack full of these that has never left me.
Bobbie Gentry did though. While those others lingered on into my grown up days, making records and being longer stories, Bobbie Gentry just stopped.
I can read now that as well as writing and producing all her own music, she’s also been a philosophy student, a model, gone on to partially own a basketball team and lives on still, quietly. But I only know these things because I’ve looked them up. For me, and for most of us, Bobbie Gentry dropped out of our lives without us noticing. Like a story half told, but in a song that’s never gone away.
Today I’m thinking of you Bobbie Gentry, wherever you are. Thanking you for the mystery, the grace and these memories . And for teaching me about stories half told, they’re sometimes the ones you never forget.