Our newest Special Feature — Five-Star Favs — is only up to the third edition but it’s already showing some diversity. After spotlighting classic rock in the first one and jazz in the second, today we’re taking a look at a song from 1967 that isn’t easy to classify.
At first glance, “Ode To Billie Joe” seems to be a sad story-song typical of country music, but it’s also been called delta blues, folk music, southern Gothic, and probably a few other things as well. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s iconic song is a tale that has many levels but is told in a straightforward manner, and it asks a tantalizing question. What did Billie Joe and his girl throw off the bridge shortly before he ended his own life?
The mystery intrigued listeners and might have helped the song become a huge hit, nominated for eight Grammys and winning four, three of them for Gentry. It also became an international sensation, one that led to several European versions of the song, not only in other languages but in some cases rewritten to make it more familiar for listeners. For example, the French version changed the chopping of cotton to the tending of vineyards, and in Sweden the tragic Billie Joe became Jon Andreas.
So what did they throw off the bridge? Fans have speculated for years, and guesses have ranged from simple and symbolic to tragic and a little gruesome. The only one who would know for sure is the songwriter, but Bobbie Gentry has always (wisely) been a little cagey about it, although she has hinted from time to time.