Sometimes you hear a record that creates an atmosphere so pungent and tangible that you almost feel as though you’ve been transplanted into another world. Such a record for me was Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ which came my way when I was an impressionable teenager, crawling out of the radio speaker like a weird reptile from some steaming southern swamp and filling my head with tales of murky goings on ‘down south’.
Let’s be clear about this, I didn’t want to like it…..this was probably 67/68, so I was feeding my head with a pretty relentless diet of Pink Floyd, Small Faces, Traffic, Quicksilver, Hendrix, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and so on….after all, Gentry’s record had one of the hallmarks of traditional pop culture…a string orchestra. Even so, there was that nagging acoustic guitar and those growling cellos and a tune I couldn’t get out of my head.
So, I bought the 45….and would play it now and again, but then I sold it or gave it away and until recently, I hadn’t heard that record for many long years. Of course, I knew even back then that this was a tale of the American South, but in those days my understanding of the South was governed by a few Westerns I’d seen, like John Ford’s ‘The Horse Soldiers’ which laid out the issues behind the American Civil War in the most simplistic manner; essentially as follows: The North – reluctant to go to war but with right on their side and The South: Gallant but misguided. Fortunately, I’ve read and seen a lot and heard a lot more since then and all kinds of people from William Faulkner to Tennessee Williams and Randy Newman to Patsy Cline have broadened my understanding of the South, though I still haven’t made it down there yet.
Southern music started to become a big thing in my life when I discovered Stax Records and then the Allman Brothers, arguably two sides of the same coin. I also remember my first encounter with J J Cale, back around 1973. I was in Copenhagen with my girlfriend and we’d gone to visit her cousin who lived out of town. He made us comfy and then invited us to try some of the local herbal smoking mixture, which left us both somewhat the worse for wear. Then he put on the first J J Cale album (‘Naturally’,1972) and I distinctly remember feeling that J J’s breathy vocals were crawling all over my body like ants. I’d never really heard anything quite like it, and though I thankfully never replicated the original listening experience , ‘Naturally’ and its successor albums became part of my life and they too, often evoked what I can only describe as that unique southern flavour – which has absolutely nothing to do with Colonel Sanders….
Getting back to Bobbie Gentry….somehow, when ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ had become one of the guilty pleasures of my record collection, I think I must have seen her on TV, maybe on ‘Top of the Pops’, and I think that probably also contributed to my view of her as not being one of the new, hip female cognoscenti like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. This was a decision probably made on appearance more than anything else; Gentry appeared to have one of those weird Priscilla Presley type hairdos that I imagined were so clogged with hairspray that the hair never seemed to move. Also, she seemed to have been nabbed by a wardrobe department for whom crimplene (especially for ‘trouser suits’) was the unwritten 11th Commandment. In short, an attractive woman had been turned into a bit of a frump, but a frump who would fit right into the Nashville/Hollywood continuum of Southern women singers.
Anyway, I won’t waste time weeping for my misjudgement of Bobbie Gentry; the following year I discovered Joni Mitchell, so I suspect Bobbie may not have made the cut anyway.
Which brings us forward to recent times, when a friend provided me with more Bobbie Gentry music than I thought existed – about 5 albums plus some duets with Glen Campbell. I also discovered that Ms Gentry gave up the music business many years ago and lives privately in Los Angeles. But, the thing is, across the years, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ still has that power and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again. I can now also decode all the ‘southernisms’ in the lyric and appreciate the conversational manner in which the murky tale gets told.
Not only that, but I’ve got to hear it in a proper context as just one of Gentry’s songs. Elsewhere on these discs, there are a few obvious attempts to ‘clone’ ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ , but she wouldn’t be the first artist to do that – anyone heard Marvin Gaye’s ‘That’s the way love is’, the follow-up to ‘I heard it through the grapevine’?
The cd’s I have run from 1967 through to about 1971 and are a mixture of good, indifferent and misguided – some fairly uninspired cover versions – but there’s nothing to really make you wince. Then again, I haven’t yet come across anything that can really stand alongside ‘Billie Joe’ either. On one level, it’s tempting to link Gentry to people like Tony Joe White and all the ‘Country got Soul’ crew, but I’m not sure that really holds water – I think Nashville had their fangs into Bobbie Gentry from a very early stage. It seems that she never really had her Aretha Franklin/Muscle Shoals moment where she cut loose of all the record company image-making bullshit and just let her talent fly free, which is a pity, really, because it might have been interesting to see what she could do in a less ‘manufactured’ context.
Of course, in 2009, the kind of ‘po’ white folks’ schtick that characterises a lot of Gentry’s own songs doesn’t really cut much ice – but then again, these recordings are over 40 years old. Maybe we should treat it like Faulkner – as a snapshot of a world that may once have existed – and move on. Certainly, a copy of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is likely to find its way on to my iPod and I’ll be happy to hear it now and again.
(Bobbie Gentry – ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ / ‘Fancy’/’Local Gentry’/’Patchwork’/The Delta Sweete’/’Touch ’em with love’)