Bobbie Gentry

Ode to Billie Joe

Composed by Bobbie Gentry

Song Review by

A simple acoustic guitar played against a background of strings creates the perfect setting for Bobbie Gentry's almost-raspy voice reminiscing about her protagonist's friend, Billie Joe MacAllister, and his suicide. The dinnertime conversation about the death is told so matter-of-fact that it creates an under-current in this masterful story/song - that the woman describing the event is more affected than she can let on. Her father dismisses the tragedy because "Billy Joe never had a lick of sense" and that there are more urgent matters at hand - like the fact five more acres of farmland have to be plowed. According to musician Buzzy Linhart the song uses a traditional blues scale (flat the 3rd and the 7th) as in "Black Magic Woman" - "I got a black magic woman and she's trying to make a devil out of me" descends in the same fashion as "the day Billy Joe McGallister jumped off the Tallahachee Bridge". The tune would be covered, veteran guitarist Cornell Dupree giving an amazing instrumental take on the title while The 5th Dimension created a superb soulful version with a voice coming in when mama hollered "Y'all remember to wipe your feet", playing roles with the characters in the song. There are scores of covers including Ellen McIlwaine's uptempo blues/folk rendition recorded in 1973 - quite a variety of talents from across the spectrum giving their interpretation of a story which at first glance would seem as type-cast as Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A.", a #1 hit from 1968. And don't discount the importance of Bobbie Gentry hitting #1 exactly a year before Jeannie C. Riley, both were country story-songs and the more serious composition from Gentry found on Capitol Records 45 #5950 was music that definitely cut the path. This was a full year and a half before Tammy Wynette would proclaim it was ok to "Stand By Your Man" while the mystery of Billie Joe's death was compounded by the relationship he had with the woman telling the story. And what they threw off the Tallahachee Bridge was a question that made the song more of a conversation piece than who the culprit was in Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" five years later. Some surmised they threw an unborn child into the water, leading to Billie Joe's depression and desperation. It also led to water cooler conversations before cable TV came up with similar soap operas. The song became the title of a film in 1976, produced by Max Baer, Jr..

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Ode to Billie Joe 1967 Capitol 4:15
Bobbie Gentry's Greatest! 1970 Capitol
Classic Rock: 1967 - Shakin' All Over 1989
Various Artists
4:12
Greatest Hits 1990 Curb 4:17
All-Time Country Classics, Vol. 1 1991
Various Artists
CEMA Special Markets
Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, Vol. 3 1991
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 4:12
No Image 1992
Various Artists
Capitol/EMI Records 4:15
The Best of Tragedy 1995
Various Artists
DCC Compact Classics 4:13
The 101 Greatest Country Hits [Box] 1995
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 4:15
Billboard Top Pop Hits: 1967 1995
Various Artists
Rhino 4:17
I Love Country: Hits of the '60s 1997
Various Artists
Priority Records / Priority 4:16
The Academy of Country Music's 101 Greatest Country Hits, Vol. 10: Country Roads 1997
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 4:15
1967: 20 Original Chart Hits 1997
Various Artists
A Time To Remember
Story Songs 1997
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 4:14
Country Legends [EMI #1] 1997
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution
Country Stars [EMI] 1997
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:14
The Golden Classics of Bobbie Gentry 1998 Collectables 4:15
American Pie 1998
Various Artists
ZYX Music
Perfect Day 1998
Various Artists
Sony Music 4:13
Country Women [Crimson] 1998
Various Artists
Crimson Productions 4:14
The Best Country Ballads in the World Ever 1998
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:14
American Pie: Great Tales & Sagas in Song 1998
Various Artists
Reader's Digest Music 4:14
Rock -N- Roll's Greatest Hits of All Time, Vol. 5 1999
Various Artists
Platinum Disc 4:15
Classic Country: Golden '60s 1999
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:12
Ode to Bobbie Gentry: The Capitol Years 2000 EMI Music Distribution 4:14
Summer Entertaining: Sounds of the South 2000
Various Artists
Universal Distribution 4:15
Legendary Country 2001
Various Artists
Disky 4:13
American Bandstand 2001
Various Artists
Band Stand 4:14
Dick Clark's #1's: 50's to 70's "When AM Radio Was King" 2001
Various Artists
Rhino 4:14
Once Upon a Song 2001
Various Artists
Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 4:13
No Image 2001
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:13
An American Quilt: 1967-1974 2002 Raven
Classic Country: More Great Story Songs 2002
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
The Sweetest Thing: The Lovely Ladies of Country Music 2002
Various Artists
Fuel 2000 / Varese 4:16
The Folk Years: Yesterday's Gone 2002
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:13
Top Hits of the Sixties: Absolute Hits 2003
Various Artists
Collectables 4:14
The Folk Years [Box Set] 2003
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:13
Women & Songs: Beginnings 2003
Various Artists
WEA International 4:16
Classic Country: Queens of Country 2003
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:13
Simply the Best: Country 2003
Various Artists
Disky
Rock On 1967 2004
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 4:15
Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry 2004 Shout! Factory 4:15
#1 Country Hits [Fuel 2000] 2004
Various Artists
Fuel 2000 4:16
Country: The Essential Album 2005
Various Artists
Essential Records 4:14
The Very Best of Bobbie Gentry [EMI] 2005 EMI 4:15
Go Country 2005
Various Artists
Disky
Complete Sixties 2005
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:17
Superstars of Country: Party Time 2005
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
Legends of Country: Classic Hits from the '50s, '60s & '70s 2006
Various Artists
Shout! Factory 4:17
No Image 2006 EMI Music Distribution 4:12
The Best of Bobbie Gentry: The Capitol Years 2007 EMI Music Distribution 4:14
Superstars of Country [Time Life] 2007
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
Pure: 60s [EMI] 2007
Various Artists
Parlophone 4:15
Where Were You: 1967 2008
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:14
This Is 1967 2008
Various Artists
EMD Int'l 4:13
Ode to Billie Joe/Touch 'Em with Love 2008 Raven 4:15
No Image 2008
Various Artists
Mixed Repertoire 4:12
The Best Sixties Album in the World...Ever! [2009] 2009
Various Artists
EMI 4:13
Pop Memories of the '60s: Honey 2009
Various Artists
Tiem Life 4:16
Sixties: Collected 2010
Various Artists
USM 4:15
Singers & Songwriters [Time-Life Box Set] 2011
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
Good Vibrations [EMI] 2011
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:12
100 Hits: Classic 60s 2011
Various Artists
100 Hits / EMI 4:14
'60s Music Revolution 2012
Various Artists
Time / Time/Life Music 4:14
100 Hits: Swinging 60s 2012
Various Artists
100 Hits 4:14
Legends of Country: Lookin' For Love 2012
Various Artists
Life / Time 4:16
Country Soul Sisters: Women in Country, 1952-74 2013
Various Artists
Soul Jazz
Legends of Country 2013
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music: 1967 2013
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 4:15
The Country Album [Universal] 2015
Various Artists
Universal Music TV 4:12
'60s Music Revolution: Different Drum
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:14
La  Légende Country
Various Artists
Sony BMG
Miles & Miles
Various Artists
Reflections 4:14
The Greatest Country [Mixed Repertoire]
Various Artists
Mixed Repertoire / Parlophone 4:15
No Image
Various Artists
blue highlight denotes editor's pick