‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is a dark southern story, cinematic in its lyrics but remaining enigmatic. The story, tells of the preacher, Brother Talyor saying how he saw the song’s narrator up on Choctaw Ridge with Billy Joe, “Throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge”. The mystery remains of what that something might have been but in the words of, Bobbie Gentry: “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important”.
Gentry has remained an enigma herself since the mid-seventies when after duetting with Glen Campbell and having her own TV show, she simply withdrew from the public eye refusing to be interviewed, perform or record.
In the mid-’60s, Gentry attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study composition and arranging. A demo tape sent to Capitol Records landed her a recording session where she recorded, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ in forty minutes on July 10, 1967. The atmospheric strings were added to the rhythmic acoustic guitar and the track was added as a B side to ‘Mississippi Delta’; it was only the fact that DJ’s started giving airtime to the B side that it became a hit.
‘Ode to Billie Joe’ has inspired many artists to record their own interpretation. Not least of the attractions of the song is its intriguing storyline and its snapshot of a southern family who seem unconcerned with Billie Joe’s demise. Equally strong an attraction is the driving rhythm of the song which has been picked up to great effect by The Jimmy Dawkins Band featured below as well as Ellen Mcilwaine. Enjoy these and please share any of your favourites in the comments column:
David & Roselyn
A rootsy take that features some tasty harmonica to add to the mix. David Leonard & Roselyn Lionheart have been making music since 1959 when they first met. Their other instruments can range from banjo and trumpet to various African musical instruments such as the sansa and kalimba.
The Jimmy Dawkins Band
The driving rhythm of the original is taken to new heights on this bluesy instrumental. Jimmy was really a Chicago blues artist but it would be a shame to miss this version for its driving intensity.
This is quite faithful to the original, though some well-placed piano chords add a little more atmosphere together with Anderson’s sassy soprano. Anderson was the songwriter responsible for many top 50 country hits in the 1960s, writing for artists such as Merle Haggard and was first discovered by Chet Atkins.
This is foot-tapping, speedily delivered goodness with a glorious bassline keeping the momentum. Mcilwaine has a soulful voice that is made for this song; she played briefly with Jimi Hendrix in New York and opened for Muddy Waters and is perhaps best known for her acoustic slide guitar playing.
The Henry Kaiser Band
This is mean, moody and means business. Kaiser’s recent work has been influenced by’60s and ’70s rock with a particular leaning towardsthe music of The Grateful Dead. His eclectic nature is demonstrated by his exploration of American folk along with the folk music of Vietnam and Madagascar.
Barber gives a spared down rendition with finger clicks and double bass bringing the storytelling to the fore.
From the ominous-sounding opening chords, darkness predominates this chill laden track, perhaps getting as close as any to Gentry’s original stated intentions in writing the song about unintentional cruelty.
Satan and Adam
Satan and Adam, consisting of Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee and Adam Gussow, played Harlem’s sidewalks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Seemingly an unlikely combination, the duo developed a synergy that regales the listener with its heartfelt authenticity.
Wendy Ellison Mullen
Mullen is an artist who relishes crossing folk/rock/blues genres and lends her talents to this silky rendition of Gentry’s classic.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
This collection ends with a gentle plodding interpretation which has some great instrumentation from the frontmen of The Foggy Mountain Boys.