Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Women you should know... Bobby Gentry

Owing to a weird coincidence last weekend where I heard the 1967 #1 song Ode to Billie Joe twice in less than 24 hours I've been a little obsessed with Bobby Gentry of late.  So, that's my introduction for today.  If you count yourself a feminist today, you stand on the shoulders of Bobby Gentry and countless other women like her.

Bobby Gentry (a stage name) came from a poor, rural background, much like the characters she sang so soulfully about.  She had a powerful voice and the ability to write haunting narratives.  One of the most remarkable things about her that I've discovered in my obsession is that she was one of the very first women in country music to write, perform and produce her own materials.  In these earliest days of feminism, this was a real success.

Ode to Billie Joe was the 'B' side of a record that quickly rose to #1 and spent 4 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.  The album replaced the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's album for a time at the top of the US Chart.  The haunting story of Billie Joe's suicide captured America's attention and debate raged about the meaning behind the song and just what was thrown off the Tallahatchie bridge.  PS... it's a real bridge.  The artist herself had this to say about the underlying themes of the lyric:

Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind.  The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes.  First, the illustration of a group of people's reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and it's subsequent effect on their lives, is made.  Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss of share of their grief.

Ten years later Ode to Billie Joe was made into a movie and perhaps the most interesting thing about that is that it was directed by Max Baer Jr. who played Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies.  (I'm not kidding).

The other Bobby Gentry song you might recognize is Fancy, but you probably heard Reba singing it.  Gentry had this to say of 'Fancy'...

"Fancy" is my strongest statement for women's lib, if you really listen to it.  I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for-- equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.

One of her last public performances was Christmas 1978 on the Johnny Carson show.  She retired from public life and is presumably living her life in LA.

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