‘It was the 3rd of June, another sleepy, dusty, Delta day,’ sings Bobbie Gentry in the opening of her most famous song Ode to Billie Joe, setting the scene for one of music’s most elusive mysteries. This song and the album of the same name is the topic of a book by Tara Murtha in her contribution to the 33 1/3 series about significant albums, published by Bloomsbury. Murtha explores both the recording and release of this album, alongside the life and eventual disappearance of Bobbie Gentry herself.
To understand why Gentry’s life took the unusual path that it did, Murtha looks to her songwriting:
‘Gentry, at her heart is a storyteller. Though occasionally confessional, more often than not she mines the themes of identity and illusion by inventing characters…She describes their plights with an observational detachment…’
These fictional songs Gentry created prove that the most powerful force in art, and life, can often be what’s left unknown. In Ode to Billie Joe the core of this song contains two mysteries: what did the girl throw off Tallahatchie bridge and why did Billie Joe commit suicide the next day? Some say she turned down his proposal, threw away the ring, others theorise that she’d had an abortion and Billie Joe couldn’t take the guilt. A film version released in 1976 suggested it was guilt over being gay that caused Billie Joe’s tragic end.
However, Bobbie Gentry herself never explained the mystery, instead using the story to explore the indifferent reaction of the family and the community. She just observed these lives from a distance, told us what she saw:
‘What happened on the bridge was the motivation but I left it open so the listener could draw his own conclusion.’
The finale left unanswered questions for sure but the best works of art let you fill in the blanks. We feel the sadness in the words, feel the emptiness in the sparseness of the music even if we don’t know the answers.
It is unsurprising then that the woman who made her name by creating mystery in her songwriting should extend that to her own real life. Bobbie Gentry didn’t so much retire from music as vanish into thin air. No one even knows when her final performance was but by the early eighties, after attending a couple of CMA awards she was never seen in public again. She had spent the 70s in Vegas cultivating an elaborate stage show that was much more musical theatre than country music. But maybe this is where we find clues to her disappearance. Bobbie Gentry was a performer. She understood how to charm and dazzle an audience.
Her public identity as Bobbie Gentry was an illusion, anyway. Her last name had been borrowed from a movie in the first place. So this made it easier for her to give it up. Everyone in showbiz knows the power of a stage name, a way to shed your old identity, to become someone new. But what they forget is that stage names work backwards too. Give up the famous persona and you can hide who you once were, protect your privacy. Take a new name and you can transform into anyone you want to be, even if that is Joan Smith from Nowhereville, U.S.A.
Yes, it’s true that Bobbie is still alive and some people say she lives in Georgia. A Washington Post reporter, in an article that is chillingly stalkerish, claims to have even spoke to her on the phone once. Murtha’s request for an interview for her book was rejected, like every other request has been for years. Gentry’s representatives always say she she is considering these offers (that’s just another way to build the intrigue, isn’t it?) but ultimately her answer is always no.
Everything about Gentry’s career, music, life has always been under her own control. As she said, in a rare interview:
“I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. I’m completely responsible for it. It’s totally my own from inception to performance.‘
So it’s no wonder that when she left the stage, she left us wanting more – that’s all just part of the show. The encore may never come but the anticipation of the crowd is everything. We’re all just standing in audience waiting hopefully but the house lights have been turned on for a long while now. No amount of pleas or applause will bring her back.
But this is no tragic end. In fact it is exactly what we, as listeners, deserve. As American author Ken Kesey said:
‘The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.’
What actually happened after Bobbie Gentry left the stage, and why she never returned, doesn’t even matter. We must understand that there are things in life which don’t need to be explained. To witness the performance alone was enough. The power of her mystery and her music is Bobbie Gentry’s true legacy, and Murtha’s concise book is an insightful exploration of both.