Ode To Billy Joe, The Twin Peaks Of Songs


February is Storytelling Month, so we are taking a look at the art of storytelling in song this month. Ode to Billy Joe was released by Bobbie Gentry in 1967 and is a spine-tingling example of mystery storytelling at it’s very best. Bobbie Gentry matched her story writing with her vocal storytelling abilities. It is her performance of the song that really brings the story to life.

Sometimes singers are guilty of forgetting that songs are about communicating with an audience. They go through the motions of singing a song without really thinking about the words or the manner in which they are delivering them. An unthinking performance can make the best written song in the world sound banal.

(photograph courtesy of Gary Bridgman)

Bobbie Gentry draws us into the world of her song by keeping its conversational tone in her delivery. She gives the characters a voice, adding to the picture painted by the words. Papa is pragmatic, dismissing the news of Billy Joe and moving on to practical matters at hand. In contrast, you can hear the sympathy in Gentry’s delivery of mama’s response.

In delivering the brother’s reminiscences about Billy Joe Gentry smiles, tilting her head slightly to one side as if she is recalling the events at the picture show. The request for more apple pie sounds natural draws us into the scene at the table as her brother tries to process the information about the death of someone he saw only the day before. The little pauses in Gentry’s singing give us the sense of someone remembering and thinking through events.

The narrator’s mother’s voice comes in again scolding her for not eating and giving us the first clue about the link between the narrator and Billy Joe. Moving onto the news about Brother Taylor, Gentry takes a big pause before delivering the mother’s crucial line about the narrator and Billy Joe being spotted ‘throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.’

The song is wound up with a verse updating events to the present but Gentry’s delivery of the final line makes it clear that the narrator is still very much rooted in the events of the past.

The words of Gentry’s song have an air of mystery about them and her performance serves to heighten this and leave us with a strange sense of unease and sadness when the song ends.

Tips for telling a story in song

When preparing to sing a song, always read through the words and get a sense of the story that is being told. Think about how you would deliver the words if you were going to read them aloud rather than singing them. Where would you put emphasis? What are the key bits of the story that you would want your audience to pick up? Working through a song like this will help you to deliver the story more convincingly and engage better with your audience.

Watch Bobbie Gentry weave her spell on this iconic song.


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