This kind of Story Song has been around since the beginning of time, I imagine, when tribes of humans gathered around the fire and told stories of their ancestors. But when a modern Story Song pops up (and it's a good one), I'm in heaven. This week's Dance Party, in honor of the Third of June (another sleepy, dusty, delta day), is the best such song I have ever run across. It was written and delivered by this gal, way back in 1967:
|Gentry's second Story Song was "Fancy." It|
described a cracker gal who was
pimped out by her mother, in order to escape
|Bobbie recorded frequently with Glen Campbell, and appeared on his variety show as well. On the strength of her biggest hit, she maintained a thriving Vegas career for a while.|
|Both the film and TV series based|
on "Harper Valley PTA" starred
Barbara Eden. I'm not aware of
any other hits by singer Riley.
Everybody called Jeannie C. Riley a real copycat when she landed on the charts a year after "Ode" was released, with a Story Song called "Harper Valley PTA". The song, about a sexy single mother who scandalizes a small town with her mini-skirts, shares enough melodic similarity to "Ode to Billie Joe" that there were murmurs of plagiarism. In tone and rhythm, though, the songs couldn't be more different, with Harper Valley being a comedic look at small-town hypocrisy. Composer Tom T. Hall filled out the "PTA" album with other story songs about the other residents of Harper Valley.
Vicki Lawrence's husband was having no luck with his composition. It was first offered to Cher (and turned down by Sonny) and composer Russell was ready to abandon the song when Vicki, who was sure it was a hit, recorded a demo herself. Most unexpectedly, the song took off,and soared all the way to #1 on the charts. The song has a tone similar to "Ode"; both tunes have been called Southern Gothic.
|In addition to recording a version of Gentry's "Fancy",|
Reba McEntire also covered this hit, 20 years after it
rose to #1.
While the Country/Western gang probably creates most of the Story Songs, several Folk/Rock artists have delivered admirable entries as well. Perhaps the most famous for my generation is Harry Chapin, who introduced his song "Taxi" on the Tonight Show in 1972.
|This tune peaked at #24 on the charts. Its|
sequel, called "Sequel," hit #23.
|I love this Story Song and wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on the Dance Party one day.|
|This Story Song peaked at #9 in 1980.|
|"And no one's gettin' fat 'cept Mama Cass," goes the refrain to this 1967 hit Story Song. Papa John and Mama Michelle penned this history of the formation of The Mamas and the Papas. It reached #5.|
This week's Dance Party is the best of all these Story Songs, in my opinion. "Ode to Billie Joe" is a haunting song, made all the more mesmerizing by the way Gentry composed it. Details of the suicide of the title character are revealed matter-of-factly, amidst the banal conversation at the table during a midday meal on a farm in Mississippi.
|"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"|
This is Ford's Theater at its grand reopening in 1968. After
watching the televised concert, I dreamed the solution to the
mystery of "Ode to Billie Joe."
EVERYBODY knew this song, loved this song, and was mystified by this song, for the story had a mystery which even its writer, Ms. Gentry, has declined to solve.
|What did they throw off the bridge?|
Why did Billie Joe kill himself?
Why did the filmmakers change the
spelling of Billie Joe's name to Billy?
Ms. Gentry ain't talking.
|Robby Benson is now remembered primarily as the voice of the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Glynnis O'Connor has maintained a steady but unremarkable career in film and TV.|
|Poor Billy Joe had to pay for being gay.|
Bobbie Gentry remained silent about the movie based on her masterful song, so we don't know if she agreed with the screenwriter's embellishments. She certainly didn't object. We'll probably never know, since she has been secluded for decades in her big house in Mississippi, for reasons unknown. Now THAT'S a Story Song waiting to happen!