Hot Air: Bobbie & Billie

She Came A Long Way, Baby

Bet you didn’t know this. I know I didn’t.

Fifty-one years ago this month a song was climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart (as well as my hometown WLS Silver Dollar Survey chart). It’d hit No. 1 on Aug 26th and stay there for four weeks. As a chart topper, it was sandwiched between the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”

The song is “Ode to Bille Joe,” performed by a previously unknown singer-songwriter, Bobbie Gentry. It was a simple, spare, haunting tune with references and language redolent of the deep South. Gentry makes mention of plowing the lower 40; that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor; blackeyed peas and biscuits; choppin’ cotton; and balin’ hay. It was set in the farthest reaches of Mississippi, the corner of the state that’s part of bayou country.

I remember the song well, having listened to it some 73,000 times on the little Silvertone transistor radio that’d been surgically attached to my ear a few short years before. I was 11 years old at the time. I couldn’t make much sense out of the song; it was as foreign to me as if it had been written in Slovak and told the tale of a teenaged Carpathian Mountains girl.

It’s Bobbie Gentry’s birthday today. She’s 74. She has lived a private life since she dropped out of show business, suddenly and unexpectedly, in 1973. But in 1967, she was one of music’s biggest stars, based solely on the meteoric success of “Ode to Billie Joe.” Here a snapshot of her, next to Glen Campbell, clutching their Grammy awards the next year.

Gentry looks positively thrilled. Makes sense: She was abandoned by her parents as a baby and was raised on her grandparents’ Chickasaw County farm. Her grandparents, acc’d’g to legend, traded a cow for a piano on which little Bobbie taught herself to play. She also taught herself to play guitar, bass, banjo, and the vibes. She wrote her first song at the age of seven.

Now, here’s the bit I didn’t know: Bobbie Gentry was the first woman to write, produce, and perform a song that would go on to top the pop and country charts. Can you imagine that?

Think of all the female singers and songwriters of the early and mid-20th Century. None of them did what Gentry did. Of course, none of them had much of an opportunity to produce their own records. God forbid any record company would let a woman handle the controls.

With Gentry as the pioneer, female singer-songwriters became more and more common over the next few years. There’d be the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell and so many more. Today, a female can be just another singer-songwriter-producer, and that’s good.

A reminder that within my lifetime — and yours if you, like me, are of a certain age — women, blacks, gays, and any number of other such folk were, for many practical purposes, nonexistent.

The Billie Joe of the title, BTW, died after a fall from the Tallahatchie Bridge. All these years later, music history geeks still ask Did Billie Joe commit suicide or was she pushed? Gentry has never answered that question — nor has she ever cared to.

Tallahatchie Bridge (since demolished).

I’m Talkin’ Big

Here’s the link to yesterday’s Big Talk, featuring modern-day viking, Troy Maynard, author of the hilarious How to Raise Viking Children and Other Tales of Woe.

Next week: feminist artist Filiz Çiçek, curator of the upcoming LGBTQ exhibit, Every Body Art, opening August 3rd at the Thomas Gallery on North College Avenue.


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