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
AM Gold: 1967 1991
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:11
No Image 1992
Various Artists
Capitol 0:00
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 4:16
The Academy of Country Music's 101 Greatest Country Hits, Vol. 10: Country Roads 1997
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 4:15
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
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
Rock -N- Roll's Greatest Hits of All Time, Vol. 3: The 60s 1999
Various Artists
Platinum Disc 3:59
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
No Image 2000
Various Artists
BMG Special Products 4:15
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
American Bandstand: CD 3 2001
Various Artists
Disky 4:14
An American Quilt: 1967-1974 2002 Raven 4:16
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
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
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
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
The Original 60's Box Set 2007
Various Artists
EMI 4:13
Top of the Pops 1967 2007
Various Artists
EMI 4:14
Pure: 60s [EMI] 2007
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 4:14
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
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
Singers & Songwriters: Troubadours 2010
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:16
Pop Memories of the 60s [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: 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 4:15
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
Truckers, Kickers, Cowboy Angels: The Blissed-Out Birth of Country Rock, Vol. 1: 1966-1968 2014
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 4:16
American Pie: Singer Songwriter Classics
Various Artists
ZYX Music 4:14
Classic '60s Pop
Various Artists
Spectrum Music 2:37
The Greatest Country [Mixed Repertoire]
Various Artists
Mixed Repertoire / Parlophone 4:15
No Image
Various Artists