Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Muddy Waters Off The Tallahatchie Bridge

I love a good Story Song.  Now I know all my composer friends will tell me, quite rightly, that ALL good songs tell a story of some kind, even if it's, well, non-linear.  But I really love a song which tells a story in the traditional sense, a song with a beginning, middle, and end;  one with characters and a plotline and a conflict, a climax, and even a denouement.  
Many of the great Story Songs are in the Country/Western
genre. Those dudes and dudettes from Memphis can really
spin a tale with a tune. Dolly Parton is an expert; I'm a crusty
old agnostic, but her rendition of the Resurrection as told by
the Apostle Peter ("He's Alive") gives me chills. She didn't
write it, but she performs it with gusto.
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:
Bobbie Gentry
"Ode to Billie Joe" launched a pretty substantial career for Gentry, whose sultry good looks, voluminous hair, and down-home Southern charm made her a natural country/western star.  Plus she wrote great tunes.  
Gentry's second Story Song was "Fancy." It
described a cracker gal who was
pimped out by her mother, in order to escape
poverty.
In addition to "Ode", our gal had success with duets with Glen Campbell, and on her own, she wrote another terrific Story Song, "Fancy", about some poor white trash who uses her feminine wiles to accumulate wealth and prestige.  (Reba McEntire has often used "Fancy" as her encore number in her concerts, as well as recording a well-received cover in 1991). Sometime in the 1980s, Bobbie Gentry withdrew from public life, for reasons unknown.  Nobody's seen or heard from her in decades, and when the Washington Post tracked her down this week, living on an estate just a few miles from the scene of her greatest song, she hung up on them. Certain wags have tagged her the J.D.Salinger of country music.
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.
People who know Vicki Lawrence only as her grouchy alter-ego, Mama, will be surprised to learn that, in her younger years, she was a One-Hit Wonder.  "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was written by her husband (at the time), Bobby Russell.  Vicki was enjoying some fame as a supporting player on The Carol Burnett Show and was certainly not a recording star, so her success with this Story Song was a total fluke.
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.
There was a murder, you see, on that Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: a philandering woman two-timed the wrong man, who had a sister (the singer) with justice on her mind. The denouement of the song reveals the singer to be the murderer (and she gets away with it! Hooray for Southern Gothic!) 


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.  
Harry Chapin hit the jackpot with "Taxi." Years later, he revisited his two characters by creating a sequel song, ingeniously called "Sequel." He wrote other Story Songs, and also delivered a huge hit with a tune which really isn't one, but reminds you of one: "Cats in the Cradle," a weepy song about fathers and sons.
This tune peaked at #24 on the charts. Its
sequel, called "Sequel," hit #23.
The response to "Taxi" was huge and immediate, and Johnny Carson invited Chapin back on his show the very next night. The song concerns a cab driver who picks up a female fare, soon to recognize her as a former lover from long ago. It's a pretty maudlin tale about lost chances and regrettable choices:  the woman exits the cab and returns to her loveless marriage as the cabbie returns to the streets and his drug habit.  Happy Valentine's Day!
I love this Story Song and wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on the Dance Party one day.
Two former lovers are also at the center of "Same Old Lang Syne", Dan Fogelberg's sad Story Song which takes place on Christmas Eve.  The story is a true one: Fogelberg was attending a family Christmas in Illinois when he ran into his high school sweetheart at a grocery store.  
This Story Song peaked at #9 in 1980.
The two wanted to reminisce but couldn't find an open bar, so they settled for a six-pack of beer in the car.  As with "Taxi", there are intimations that neither of the old friends are happy with their current lives, and when they part, the "snow turned into rain," revealing a melancholy which a lot of people feel at the holidays.
"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. 
The Mamas and the Papas sang a Story Song about the formation of their group when John and Michelle Phillips wrote "Creeque Alley".  The song mentions many of the folk/rock artists working in the 60s as they form groups, disband groups, form other groups, and generally chase fame while being broke. The story ends when "California Dreamin' is becomin' a reality," that is, when the group had their first hit song.  I'd be interested in another song describing the dissolution of the Mamas and the Papas, which was messy and full of drama.
This film was produced 9 years after the initial release of the song. Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor were a popular teen couple at the time, appearing in several films together as well as a TV version of Our Town. They were not a couple in life, but they had an onscreen chemistry. Note the director of this little film: it's the man who played Jethro Bodine. He knew what he was doing, as the finished product, made for 1.1 million, grossed about 36 times its budget.
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."
There is a mystery at the song's center which has never been solved.  But I solved it, in my sleep, back in 1968.  The night was January 30, 1968, and Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, held a huge gala to celebrate reopening as a legitimate theater.  The event was televised, and I have clear memories of watching it, with great excitement, from my family's home in Atlanta.  I was about 12, and the main reason I was tuning into this show was to watch one of the stars performing at the gala.  Bobbie Gentry was to sing her "Ode to Billie Joe", and I was not going to miss it.  The song had been around a year or so, and was still very prominent in the country's consciousness.  
In 1967-68, you could tune into almost any radio station and wait only 10-20 minutes before hearing this song. It was the epitome of the cross-over hit;  it reached #1 on the Pop chart (knocking the Beatles's "All You Need is Love" out of the top spot), plus the song also spent time on the Easy Listening chart (#7), the R&B chart (#8) and the Country chart (#17). The song earned 8 Grammy nominations and won 4, three of them for Gentry herself.
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.
In the song, a  young teen aged couple is seen throwing something off a bridge into the muddy river below;  soon afterward, the young man throws himself off the same bridge.  What the hell did they toss?  That night in 1968, I fell asleep in front of the TV almost immediately after Bobbie Gentry's performance of the song.  And I dreamed the rest of it.  
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.
Oh, how I wish I could recall my dream exactly, because my subconscious was singing added stanzas to the song, all completely within the rhythm and rhyme. When I woke up from this dream, I told everyone I knew:  the teens threw a baby off the bridge.  (I have since learned that this conclusion has been reached by others over the years, but believe me, I had no idea until I dreamed the song).  Years later, when a film was produced based on the song, the protagonists did not throw an actual baby off the bridge, they threw a doll.  I was pretty damn close though, right?  
Poor Billy Joe had to pay for being gay.
The film answered the question regarding Billie Joe's suicide as well: according to the screenwriter, our hero was a closeted gay kid who got drunk one night and Did the Deed with a Dude.  His guilt was so strong, he could do only what every gay protagonist of the period was required to do: either be murdered or commit suicide. No happy endings for homosexuals could be allowed back then, so Billie Joe had to go.

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!


No comments: