It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.
So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.
Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.
Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.
“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”
Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”
Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.
Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.
The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”
The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.
Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.
For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”
Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”
Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.
Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.