was only 24 when The Delta Sweete was released, yet shed already
sold three million copies of her debut single Ode To Billie Joe,
a controversial song about teen suicide. Gentry was brimming with
confidence to write The Delta Sweete in 1968 as a concept album
of life in the rural south. No country singer, let alone a girl,
had put out an album without a single in mind.
Delta Sweete was a "suite" of songs about life on her
grandfathers dirt-poor farm in Chickasaw Countys Mississippi
Delta. Her formative years were by all accounts impoverished. "We
didnt have electricity," she said in an interview, "And
I didnt have many playthings." Her intention was to bring
the listeners into the country, to church (Sermon), at a family
gathering (Reunion) or down by the river (Okolona River Bottom Band,
Louisiana Man). When Ode To Billie Joe came out in the summer of
67, people talked about the song and wondered about the unsolved
mystery of his suicide. Suddenly the south was remembered again,
from Choctaw Ridge to the Tallahatchie Bridge, a place and time
forgotten in the rush for modern living, became alive.
the south shaped a person differently. On The Delta Sweete, Gentry
comes across as tough and pragmatic, without the daintiness of a
Southern Belle. Her dark hair, well-sculptured features and dark
eyeliners reinforced her inner strength. She had to be to have convinced
her label to allow her to attempt a concept album and also write
eight of the 12 songs. No obvious singles could be heard and for
covers, Gentry included Al Dixons Big Boss Man, Mose Allisons
Parchman Farm, John Loudermilks Tobacco Road, all tough blues
and perhaps as a concession, the pop country of Doug Kershaws
own songs measure up well against these tried and trusted standards.
The suite opens with a party band chooglin on the river in
Okolona River Bottom Band. Its a happy affair with Gentry
bending words to great effect, rhyming "majority" with
her own inventions like "barr-edy" and "come as you
are-edy". It showed an inventive flair to challenge country
music with pop music conventions. But when you hear a rasping, leering
man laughing in the background, the strangeness throws you off.
reveals itself in the next track, Al Dixons Big Boss Man,
traditionally seen to be about life on a plantation down south with
the boss whippin your back. "You got me working, boss
man/ workin round the clock/ I want me a drink of water/
You wont let me stop". Gentry overhauls the song. At
the final verse, she throws away the ambiguity in the song. She
goes down low and sings "Can you hear me when I call? / You
aint so big, you just tall, thats all". The innuendo
reveals the sexual politics in the song. When the night comes, the
slave girls are the masters.
was a femme fatale even if she didnt ever claim to be. On
Mose Allisons Parchman Farm, she becomes the manipulator who
has tricked her lover into prison on a farm. As the song goes on
to reveal her lover as a hard workin man who "aint
never done nobody no harm", she describes him picking cotton
and drinking wine. All the while unaware he is being set up. At
the songs conclusion, Gentry deadpans, "well hes
gonna be there for the rest of his life
And all he ever did
was shoot his wife."
she also has a soft side to her. Her fun side devoted itself to
childish things and sometimes-outright fantasy (Refractions). She
could purr a lullaby like Jessye Lisabeth but add drama to make
an adult listen ("What secret are you keeping Jessye
Lisabeth? Pray tell/ What could cause such bitter tears? What lesson
has life taught you?").
talent as arranger is best heard on Reunion, where she sings a duet
with an unidentified male voice with chorus lending support. Its
set at a family gathering where the effect of hearing the two voices
interjecting with the chorus brings to mind such reunions as affairs
where everyone is talking but no one is listening.
more beautiful songs hold up side two. Penduli Pendulum has her
singing at her most moving about the predictability of a pendulums
swing. How everything that moves forward must swing back again:
"Pendulum, like perfect rhyme/ Always in predicted time/ Penduli,
when will I learn/ Departure means a sure return".
the only love song on the album, closes on a fairy-tale note. A
country girl wishes for her lover to fulfill his promise to build
her a courtyard in their country mansion "with a white marble
fountain" and a "lacy, iron gate". The last verse
"patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all Im living
for" is Gentrys dreams on the edge of illusion.
was a pop singer, songwriter, arranger, and a multi-talent at a
time when women were not appreciated for having too much talent.
She later revealed shed "originally produced Ode To Billie
Joe and most of (her) other records". But in the 60s
"a staff producers name was nearly always put on the
Delta Sweete remains missing on CD since it first came out, as is
Bobbie Gentry. She married thrice, the first time for three months,
the second for a year and the last for enough time to birth her
only son, Tyler. She retired in 1980 and has not been seen since.
Some suggest she is in California working as a teacher. Unlike myths
about Jim Morrison or Elvis deaths, Gentry is still alive
but hidden from sight, making her the more elusive.
came to fame shrouded in the mystery of Ode To Billie Joe. People
have analysed the lyrics to suggest why he committed suicide. Two
movies have been made, suggesting he was homosexual, the latest
was Kelly Reichardts Ode, a black & white narrative on
gay sexuality, repression and teen suicide.
her gift was her songs. She offered Casket Vignette (from the Local
Gentry album) as an answer to Ode, that our obsession with death
is just business as usual. The two-and-a-half minute song starts
with the horns offering a carnival-like atmosphere. Gentry is behind
the counter at the morticians as she ushers Ms Morgan in,
"Here are some samples of the fabric Ms Morgan," and offers
her condolences, "I know how painful it must be/ but I guess
its your responsibility
I understand he was your fiance,
what a tragedy."
then makes small talk to lighten the mood, "Everybody wants
to go to heaven Ms Morgan but nobody wants to die/ Have you ever
often wondered why? / And why are your eyes so dry? / it would help
to cry". The horns blow in again to suggest a tempo change.
Familiarity has turned to contempt, "This is a popular, dusty
rose velvet Ms Morgan
or how about a satin brocade, guaranteed
not to fade or maybe youd prefer another shade, trim in gold
or silver grey?"
barely a pause, Gentry tries to smooth feathers, "Would you
like a lemonade? Theres no ice Im afraid," as the
chorus of la la la las makes hilarity of her lightness. Gentry offers
one final attempt to make a connection:
can take comfort Ms Morgan/ he is where we all want to be."
It fails. "Why are you laughing at me? Dont you believe
in eternity?" The door creaks open and Ms Morgan steps out
as the music swirls us back to lifes carnival.
wrote the whole song with a cameras eye for detail and contained
it under three minutes. Casket Vignette was taken from her third
album, the first to feature pop song covers. It was the first breach,
the first concession that led her down the road from artist to a
Las Vegas billboard. Along the way, there were some fine songs,
but later albums were all compromised with her vision of the south
slowly chipped away.
final puzzle of Bobbie Gentry is the rumor that there exists a seven-minute
long version of Ode To Billie Joe with added verses that might have
spelled out the mystery of his suicide. The record company had ordered
it cut to four minutes and seven seconds to accommodate radio. Now
how unreasonable is that? Michael Cheah
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