Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learnt From Bobbie Gentry

Reader Logo by Jonathan Pinnock

Back in July of this year, I was asked to be guest editor for National Short Story Week, and as part of this I made some recommendations for short stories to read. But it struck me recently that I’d left out one of my favourites, one of the best examples of storytelling ever written. The really odd thing about this particular story is that it’s hidden in plain sight; 3 million people own a copy and countless more than that know it off by heart. Chances are you’ll know it too, especially if like me you’re a child of the 60s. I’m talking (as you’ve probably guessed from the title of this piece) about Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”. Here she is singing it on Top of the Pops back in 1968:

Pop songs very rarely go in for telling stories and when they do they tend to go for the ballad form. On occasion this can work very well but all too often the results can be laughable (try listening to some of the examples featured in Graham Norton’s “Tune with a Tale” feature on Saturday mornings on BBC radio 2, and you’ll get the picture). My theory is that these ballad-style songs fail because they break the first rule of fiction: show, don’t tell.

Which is where “Ode to Billie Joe” is in a class of its own. This is a story about an utterly catastrophic event in a young girl’s life (the suicide of her lover) but the protagonist never says a word about how she feels. However, we are left in absolutely no doubt by the end of the song that she is completely devastated, with no-one around who can help her.

If you look at how Gentry tells the story, it’s actually quite unusual. Ostensibly the action takes place over dinner, with the family sitting down to a meal together after a hard day in the fields. But the real story takes place in the background, in little snippets of casual conversation. When a story is told in this way, you feel a bit like the audience in a pantomime, shouting “Behind you!” It’s a technique that Susannah Rickards uses very well in a number of the stories in her collection “Hot Kitchen Snow”, and it’s extremely effective in getting the reader involved.

Then at just the right moment, Gentry drops in that single couplet with the Mama complaining about her not eating a single bite, and we begin to think that the story may have extra resonance for one of the people at the table. Sure enough, there’s an “oh, by the way” that confirms our worst fears.

At this point, you might think that there will be some kind of emotional denouĂ©ment, but Gentry’s a lot more subtle than that. She finishes the scene there and then and moves on to the postscript. And that final verse is the killer in many ways, because it shows life moving on, for better or worse, but our protagonist still stuck in the same place, with no resolution. It’s also pretty clear (but again shown, not told) that she and her grieving mother are incapable of reaching out to each other.

Gentry’s other masterstroke is to leave not one but two mysteries in the story. What were they throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge and why on earth did Billie Joe go on to kill himself? She doesn’t say, but instead invites us in to make our own minds up, ratcheting up our emotional involvement with the story one more notch. There is, incidentally, a film based on the song that provides an explanation, proving not for the first time that Hollywood doesn’t always have the best handle on what makes a story work.

Bobbie Gentry’s subsequent career hasn’t been particularly distinguished, either. But then again, if I could write just one story a tenth as good at this one, I would die a happy man. It’s a three and a half minute course in creative writing.


K J Bennett said...

After all these years I can finally come out of the closet and admit that as a 12 year-old, Bobbie Gentry was my idol (Er, I was the 12 year-old, she was older). This is one of my all time fav songs.

A couple of years later I would listen to the like of Hawkwind, Can and other wild stuff, but I'd still tune in to her TV shows whenever they were on - often repeated in the early 70s, I recall.

jonathan pinnock said...

Welcome to the world outside the closet, Kevin! I'd forgotten she had a TV series - I'm sure I watched it too.

Daniel said...

Great article but Bobbie Gentry did indeed have a vital career after her massive debut. Her composition, Fancy(another great story song), has also become a classic, thanks in large part to the Reba McEntire cover and 20 million in cd sales. Her lush composition, Mornin' Glory, was covered by the late jazz master pianist, Bill Evans, and the opening track to his historic 'Live In Toyko' album and concert and was the signature tune of the last stage of his career. Her career as Howard Hughes golden girl in Vegas is legendary. She signed the first female million dollar contract in the early 1970's and would remain a fixture on the circuit until the early 1980''s. She was totally responsible for the lavish review which sold out year after year and received massive critial praise. To date,Ode to Billie Joe has been covered by over 100 artists and sold near 50 million records. She won the grammy hall of fame for the song in 1999.

Daniel said...

Bobbie Gentry's last television appearance was in May of 1981 on an N.B.C Mothers day special hosted by Ed McMahon. She sang the Broadway song, Mama A Rainbow' to her own mother, Ruby, in the audience. She retired to focus on raising her young son from a brief marriage to singer Jim Stafford. Her business interests were extensive and included a production and publishing company which to this day are still chartered in the state of California and an important minority ownership stake in the Phoniex Suns basketball ball team. She also owns several thousand acres of prime Californai farm land. As of 2006, her entire Capitol Records catalog is back in print, thanks to Australia's Raven Records. Over 50,000 cd's have been sold at 20 bucks a pop. Her greatest achievement in a recording studio the album, PatchWork, in which she wrote and produced the entire set(including masterful musical interludes tying the song cycles together) has been her biggest reissue seller. Hailed as a masterpiece upon release in the early 1970's and in recent re-issue commentary the album originally had sluggish sales thanks to second rate promotion from her label; a backlash from the boysclub for her complete control of the project.

jonathan pinnock said...

Hi Daniel,

Many thanks indeed for that and apologies for selling her short! I'll definitely be looking into the rest of her output now.


Daniel said...

Hello Johnathan. Thanks for the reply. As you an tell, I am passonate about Bobbie Gentry. It has amazed me that this woman was writing,producing and publishing her own glorious songs in the 1960's when women were only receiving one rotation in ten for airplay. Her original Capitol Records contract gave her the same royalty rate as the Beatles. In 1967 she had sold a whopping 5 million records. 3.5 million singles and an unheard of (for a woman) 1.5 million albums. Her debut album sold 500,000 copies in its first couple of weeks displacing the Beatles St. Pepper from the top spot. As she demanded more creative control of her recording sessions, she butted heads with the boysclub mentality at the label who felt their own positions threated.This is why she retreated to Las Vegas where she had complete artistic control of her legendary review. I got this information direct from an old a&r man at the label who admired the fact she was not passive about her career like many woman of the period. 'PatchWork' is a glorious album. It shows her breathtaking range of style, tin-pan-ally,country,pop, r&b- it has the power and feel of a Broadway play. It is available at most internet outlets, Amazon, Barne&Noble ect. It is a two-fer one cd with her album, Fancy. The Fancy recording sessions were done at Rick Halls Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The title track was a big hit. Fancy went #31 pop, #26 country,#8 adult contemporary and #65 r&b. It spent 14 weeks on the hot 100. In Canada it went #1 country and #26 pop. It also contains her #1 U.K pop hit cover of'I'll Never Fall In Love Again' which charted big in 20 European and Asian countries in 1970.