Monday, July 6, 2009

Southern Gothic

The combined effect of a mention of Bobbie Gentry on the current Lazy Sunday thread at Larvatus Prodeo plus the amazing clip of the equally amazing Barry McGuire singing 'Eve of Destruction' at James Bradley's City of Tongues, with James' comment that 'the great ones never date', produced a kind of chemical reaction that sent me hightailing it to Google to find this:





This was one of the first songs I ever learned to play on my brand-new guitar (which I still have, stained with the blood of my fingers) and sing. I've got a particularly vivid memory of a houseboat holiday when I was sixteen, singing this song as part of the after-dinner family self-entertainment in an exaggerated Southern accent while my parents and sisters threw in a lot of Yee-ha and Lord have mercy in a kind of call-and-response approach, but my dad, half-cut and feeling no pain, and if I was sixteen he must still only have been, what, 42, got a bit more creative and started throwing in responses that acted as a kind of subtext to what is already an extremely veiled and secretive song, its drama residing in its silences. So our version, sung forty years ago in the middle of nowhere on a boat tied up to a willow on the bank a river that now belongs to history and myth, was full of things like this:

That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today
(Ah hates them preacher men)
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh and by the way
(Here we go, this ain't good)
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
(Ah tole you never go up there)
And she and Billy Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchee Bridge
(You in biiiig trouble)

9 comments:

Amanda said...

as just thinking about Bobbie g. the other day. She retired from performing in the late 70s or early 80s and not been heard of since. I'd like to hear her story one day.

One of my favourite clips ever, for the song which is remarkable for the time and naturally for the outfit and dancing. And the modernist shack installation backdrop.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4ZCrMESar8

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh my god, Amanda, obviously BG didn't eat anything for a week before that gig.

Pav, that song absolutely fascinated -- and freaked -- me when I was a kid. I haven't thought of it for years. I so love your dad's sense of humour.

skepticlawyer said...

I first encountered the film as a kid, and then sought out the song.

Like you, have always loved the song.

M-H said...

So what were they throwin' offa that bridge? A ring? A dead baby? Any theories? Wikipedia doesn't know, but I always thought it was a baby.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I checked Wikipedia too -- I like it that Bobbie Gentry said she didn't know either. I think it was either Beckett or Pinter who when asked about some mystery or other in one of his plays, 'If I'd known that, I would have said so in the play.'

Misrule said...

I have Ode to Billy Joe as my ring tone. I am not sure what this says about me, but it never inclines me to answer the phone...

Nabakov said...

Like most others here, I first encountered Ms Gentry through "Ode".

An amazing song that, as our host observes, creates true drama out of what's not said, pass the biscuits please.

It was so good at evoking doomed adolescence in the sticky red clay humid south that it inspired the novel and then film.

I've always had a hankerin' for Miss Gentry since then. She's another one of these brilliant singer-songwriter-psychogeographers that the US seems to throw up so effortlessly.

And like her contemporaries, Tony Joe White and Bill Withers, she emerged from nowhere with a full blown artistic sensibility, executed a small but perfectly formed body of work and then just finally walked away from it all.

Here's the lyrics to one of her songs that should not be lesser known - in which, as with "Ode", she lays out several lives and one death through what she doesn't say.

"Casket Vignette" - words and music Bobby Gentry.

'Here are some samples of the fabric, Miss Morgan
I know how painful it must be
But I guess it's your responsibility
I understand he was your fiancee
What a tragedy

Everybody wants to go to heaven, Miss Morgan
But nobody wants to die
Have you often wondered why
And why are your eyes so dry
It would help to cry

This is a popular, dusty-rose velvet Miss Morgan
Or how about a satin brocade
Guaranteed not to fade
Or maybe you'd prefer another shade
Trimmed in gold or silver braid
Would you like a lemonade
There's no ice, I'm afraid

You can rest assured you have our heartfelt sympathy
(You can use our easy payment plan)
(Two hundred now and fifty when you can)
(We wanted you to know we understand)
La, la ,la, la, la

You can take comfort in knowing, Miss Morgan
He's where we all want to be
Why are you laughing at me
Don't you believe in eternity'

Beats the shit out of Raymond Carver doesn't it, Miss Morgan.

Nabakov said...

And make sure you check out "Okolona River Bottom Band", her slinky bluesy swampy raucous brass heavy take on some of the same issues raised by "Harper Valley PTA". One of the all time top sexiest songs.

Incidentally Ms Gentry has a proud Portuguese heritage. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

And according to this comment's word verification, the collective noun for part Iberian/part US southern female singer-songwriters who didn't take shit from their men is: "eadomi"

Nabakov said...

Now listening to Bobbie's debut single (of which "Ode" was just the B side then). "Mississippi Delta", one stone righteous slice of swamp rock before the term was even invented. The yoni to the lingham of "Polk Salad Annie".

Or as word verification here would have it, the "worigne".