Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

by Tara Murtha (Bloomsbury Academic)

The book series 33 1/3 is, as you might guess, about music. Each small book—they’re usually around 100 pages long—looks at a important albums from pop, rock, or rap history. The clever name, and the charming design of the books themselves, make the project tremendously appealing. But the series has been disappointingly uneven since publisher Continuum launched it in 2003; some titles are serious studies, but others, chockablock with typos and seeming incomplete—not so much.

Now published under the umbrella of Bloomsbury Academic, the series may have more to recommend it. This title, which looks at Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 album Ode to Billie Joe, certainly has real gravitas. That’s thanks to author Tara Murtha’s exhaustive research into one of pop music’s great mysteries: Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?

A melodramatic “Southern gothic,” the titular song from Gentry’s first album tells the story of a boy who jumped to his death off the Tallahatchie Bridge, for reasons unknown. Written and performed by a previously unknown gal from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, the song became a number-one hit that defied easy classification.

At the time, listeners speculated about what caused Billie Joe to do what he did. But the mystery that Murtha is concerned with has to do with the song’s author, who pulled one of show biz’s greatest disappearing acts. After writing, recording, and touring tirelessly for about a decade, Gentry slid out of public view without so much as a goodbye, and no one really knows why. She hasn’t given an interview in years.

She didn’t grant Murtha an interview, either—just a very gracious “no thank you.” But Murtha, a reporter from Philadelphia who consistently turns out tough, insightful articles that are often staunchly feminist, seems a good candidate for cracking the case. She digs up rare performance footage and interviews everyone from step-brothers to session musicians, soon discovering that a more apt question is, not where, but who is Bobbie Gentry?

She was a multifaceted performer who danced the hula on Southern California’s “tiki circuit” and, in the seventies, designed elaborate Vegas stage shows in which she performed wearing jeans studded with real Tiffany diamonds. Though she was often insulted by sexist reporters, Gentry was a savvy business person who made pots of money and never bothered concealing her ambition. And despite the fact that her act traded heavily on the image of her as a simple country girl, her work was taken seriously from the start: The handwritten lyrics to her famous ode are now archived at the University of Mississippi, “alongside works by Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.”

Murtha pulls free the threads of truth from a tangled knot of personal mythology and contradictions. Her book is likely to be a hit with casual listeners and pop-culture obsessives alike.

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