Bobbie Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter, on July 27, 1942, in Chickasaw County, is remembered for 1967’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Released July 10, 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe” was Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, beginning August 26.
“The Letter” by the Box Tops of Memphis, featuring 16-year-old Alex Chilton, eclipsed “Ode to Billie Joe.” Alex’s parents lived in Jackson before his birth. Mary Evelyn Reid, from McComb, graduated from MSCW. Sidney Chilton, from Starkville, graduated from Ole Miss. Sidney was personnel director for Mississippi Power and Light. “Some people considered (him to be) one of the best musicians in Jackson...”
The Chiltons remained lifelong friends with the late Iris and Army Brown, here. After relocating to Memphis, Mary Evelyn opened Mary Chilton Galleries, where she featured Mississippi artists, among them photographer Bill Eggleston and potters Pup and Lee McCarty.
My primary interest in “Ode to Billie Joe” is contextualizing it amidst music of the time. The year 1967 transitions from “the British Invasion” — The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, notably — to sounds showcasing indigenous influences: blues, country and jazz, germane to Mississippi, and bluegrass and rockabilly, as well as gospel and early rock-and-roll, more loosely. I think that The Doors “Light My Fire” is an immensely more memorable single. The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is immensely more memorable as an album. Yet neither anticipates a return to American roots.
The song tells the listener less than it reveals: No one hears what one projects onto it. It is unstated whether they are African American, Caucasian or of each race, — arguably unacceptable at the instant that Loving v. Virginia outlawed previously impermissible miscegenation.
In addition, nowhere are listeners informed that Billie Joe McAllister dies.
Other assumptions include age — as in Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”: Did Billie Joe jump because the narrator was too young and “her mom did not agree?”
Were the lovebirds incompatible, as in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” — best experienced through Ella Fitzgerald’s solo recording or duet with Louis Armstrong?
Were the sweethearts’ families as irreconcilable as the Capulets and Montagues in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet?” Class incompatibility is entertained in Baton Rouge’s Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town” and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll.”
More intriguing is The Kinks’ “Lola” — anticipating LGBT awareness — intimating that Billie Joe or the narrator was transgender; maybe both.
The narrator could have been a femme fatale as found in the “Habanera” aria of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Billie Joe could have been chemically dependent, lacking impulse control, driving his jump from the Tallahatchie Bridge. He could have been depressed, as in The Traveling Wilburys’ “Congratulations,” the song that I assess best captures said self-destruction.
Mississippi has a plethora of culture, literature and music providing poignant insights into the human condition and inhabiting Mississippi. Our remarkably rich resources provide personal and professional possibilities while Mississippians wrestle with seizing opportunities and prospering post-pandemic.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.