It’s the third of June. Somewhere in Mississippi, it’s another sleepy, dusty delta day. Since the summer of 1967, when the Southern gothic ballad “Ode to Billie Joe,” set on this day in that place, first hit the airwaves, the song has captivated American pop culture in a way few ever have.
Written and sung by an unknown young woman from Mississippi named Bobbie Gentry, it was an eerie, minor-key mystery about an unnamed young woman and her family sitting around a farm dinner table discussing, in elliptical terms, the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.
It sold tens of millions of copies. It knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. It spawned a 1976 movie. It made Gentry a hot Vegas star. She kicked around with Elvis and Tom Jones and briefly married casino magnate Bill Harrah.
The song’s iconic success also helped launch one of the most enduring riddles in pop: Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?