It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
That is the first line of the classic, haunting ballad, “Ode To Billy Joe,” written and made famous in 1967 by Bobbie Gentry, whose own J.D. Salinger-like reclusiveness is an interesting story in and of itself. We learn four lines down from that introductory line of the song that, “Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
So as we continue on our discovery of brand storytelling, today our road trip takes us to a mysterious spot in the road in Mississippi where the Tallahatchi bridge once stood—and where according to the motion picture based on the song, Billy Joe jumped 60 years ago this very day.
The actual bridge itself collapsed in 1972. It was just one more piece of evidence surrounding this song to mysteriously vanish.
The song was originally the B-side of Gentry’s first single in 1967, and actually went to Number 1. Nearly a decade later, it was made into a motion picture. For anyone who grew up in The South (in the USA), you really believed this song was detailing an actual true story.
Why The Song’s Story Is So Powerful
The entire story unfolds around the dinner table, as the narrator is learning from her mother that the young man has killed himself that day. Between the lyrics which unravel in a very conversational style and the extreme detail given, the story feels like a true first hand account.
And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Remember the first time you learned of someone in your community dying tragically at a young age? If you lived in a small community, such a dark event was sure to stir up much conversation and questions among adults and children. As a child, those stories can become formidable learning lessons about the fragile nature of life and the sudden, unpredictability of death. And the conversations related to those tragedies can go on for months and even years. The stuff that legends are made of.
The theme of “Ode To Billy Joe” was so strong that it was adapted that same year by an American/French songwriter named Joe Dassin into a French song titled, “Marie-Jeanne” telling almost the exact same story, swapping out the roles of the lead male and female characters. There was also a Swedish adaptation titled, “Jon Andreas visa.” And then in the mid 1970′s, a film based on the song was created, with Bobbie Gentry called in to help on the screenplay. The producer of the film was Max Baer Jr., who you might recall as Jethro Bodine from the CBS sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, which aired in the 1960-70′s.
The Mysterious Disappearance Of Bobbie Gentry
Perhaps almost as interesting as the story of this song, is the story of Bobbie Gentry who wrote and recorded it. She was just 23 at the time it was recorded and it was on her first single and became a number 1 song of 1967. She was one of the first women in the music business to write and produce her own music. She was really decades ahead of her time in many ways. She was Shania Twain decades before Shania, in terms of her knock-out gorgeous looks, amazing performance ability and her wide range of musical styles. She was a major success as a songwriter and recording artist but left the entire business rather suddenly.
Try to find any kind of image of the raving beauty and you won’t find anything dated past the late 1970′s, a pretty amazing feat in today’s information age when even your average nobody has some kind of online footprint. Conjecture was that she was living in California for the past several decades. Even in May of 2012, the BBC produced a documentary titled, Whatever Happened To Bobbie Gentry? And, the documentary producers were not able to get a fresh look at Gentry even for that. In fact, the documentary itself has also gone off the grid—no actually clips of it to be found online anywhere. The BBC press release promos are all that remain.
Another Interesting Story
Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I was remarking on Facebook about how much I love Bobbie Gentry’s music (in fact, I’ve just written a song that takes place at a party in 1969 where I get to meet Ms. Gentry). A friend hit me up and told me about actually being called to a house about a year ago for some professional services. The house was actually a mansion in a city in the south. My friend said that after being let inside the door by a man (the owner’s son), a beautiful older woman “floated” down the stairway. The woman then introduced herself as Bobbie Gentry. My friend, being from a much younger generation, said the name didn’t dawn on her and the lady had to actually explain she had been in the entertainment industry.
June 3 and the Tallahatchie Bridge. It’s amazing what a great story can do for a bridge.
Stories like this stick in the brain and create conversation. And that’s why plans are in the works for a super slick documentary on Brand Storytelling produced by yours-truly. If interested in learning more as it nears release, please leave a comment here on the blog.