Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In the summer of ’67, when Sgt. Pepper ruled the land and light pop songs like “Windy” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” were high on the charts, a song came out of the South the like of which had never been heard. Murky and mysterious, prompting far more questions than it answered, “Ode to Billie Joe” cast a spell over America, and Bobbie Gentry (who turns 72 today) was thrust into the spotlight to say what she knew about the unknowable song she’d written and sung.
Certainly “Ode” was unknowable to Capitol Records, Gentry’s label; “Those involved felt it had a number of drawbacks,” she later said. “They said it was too long, that it couldn’t be categorized and aimed at a specific audience, that I was a female vocalist and soloist and this was the day of group singers.” The fact that the song revolved around a suicide couldn’t have helped, either. Consequently, it was shunted off to the B-side of “Mississippi Delta,” but this was back in the day when adventurous DJs would flip singles over, and public demand turned it into the elusive hit that it became.
Gentry wouldn’t answer all the questions fired at her about the song’s specific meaning (“I left it open so the listener could draw his own conclusion”), but did say it was about indifference – how the family didn’t realize the narrator was Billie Joe McAllister’s girlfriend, or how the narrator didn’t realize her mother’s loss of a husband paralleled her own loss. That wasn’t enough for an answer-hungry public, and in 1976 a hit movie was released that spelled out specifics in greater detail. The general public agreed en masse that these answers weren’t the final ones, and the mystery remained.
Today Gentry has vanished from any scene, but “Ode to Billie Joe”‘s pull remains just as strong as it ever was. Hundreds of covers exist; a surprisingly high number of them are instrumentals, indicating the song’s music is as enigmatic as its lyrics. Today, though, we’ll focus on five covers that were sung as well as played.
Nancy Wilson – Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry cover)
Not the Nancy Wilson from Heart, who laughed at Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Nancy Wilson the jazz singer – she prefers “song stylist” – and three-time Grammy winner. (An honest mistake, as both of them are Pisces.) Her cover of “Ode to Billie Joe” contrasts a cool vocal with a forceful arrangement that only gets more powerful as it progresses. A listener’s as likely to be bowled over here by the music as by the message.
Jackie Wilson & Count Basie – Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry cover)
Mr. Excitement Jackie Wilson was back on top after his “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” had hit the top 10, and someone had the quality idea of teaming him with legendary pianist Count Basie for 1968’s Manufacturers of Soul, an all-cover album with two moderate hits in “Chain Gang” and “For Your Precious Love.” “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t released as a single, but it easily could have been – Wilson’s performance is that dynamic.
Karin Krog & Dexter Gordon – Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry cover)
Karin Krog is a Norwegian jazz vocalist, highly regarded by true fans for her using her voice more as an instrument than a conveyor of lyrics, a style that would later be found in singers like the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. Pitchfork singled out Krog’s cover of “Ode to Billie Joe” for especial praise, saying, “She effectively transplants the song from the Deep South to some other, slightly fantastical terrain, lending it a fragmented funk momentum that transforms it completely. It’s an amazing feat of vocal interpretation, presenting the human voice as a tool for musical and narrative abstraction and Krog as a formidable artist.” Oh, and Dexter Gordon’s pretty amazing on it too.
The 5th Dimension – Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry cover)
Many commenters say that “Ode to Billie Joe” reads less like a song than a story, complete with multiple characters and plot twists. The 5th Dimension’s cover takes that reading a step further, turning the song into a one-act play, with different members handling the vocals of each character in the song. Appropriately enough, their performance adds a new dimension to “Ode.”
Sinead O’Connor – Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry cover)
One of “Ode to Billie Joe”‘s biggest points of contention was the question of what Billie Joe and the song’s narrator were throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Flowers? A ring? A gun? The movie said it was a rag doll, a heavily symbolic answer that satisfied few if any. Sinead O’Connor’s cover, featured on the charity album The Help Album, added a sound effect to indicate what Sinead thought it was. Props to her for the extended pause before her offhand “Oh, by the way…”