Review: Ode to Billie Joe – Tara Murtha

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By Austin Nolen

Reviewed: Murtha, Tara. Ode to Billie Joe. Vol. 102 of the 33 1/3 Series. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

In some circles, it’s long been common to point out that an artist’s work is influenced by and reflects the time in which it is made. Unfortunately, that verity is just as commonly reduced to a series of rote reflections on traditional academic categories – ignoring the countless colorful ways the world can influence a creative work.

In contrast, the new book written by Philadelphia journalist Tara Murtha for the long-running 33 1/3 album dissection series is a compelling reminder of just how lively pop culture analysis can be. In what she calls an “investigative pop history” of the career of Bobbie Gentry, best known for her song and album titled Ode to Billie Joe, Murtha moves from subjects as diverse as agricultural economics in the Southern US to the growth of a Hawaiian music scene in California.

Her subject’s life gives Murtha no shortage of such varied material. Born and raised in Mississippi before moving to California as a teenager, Gentry’s life parallels many changes occurring around her. Despite working for years as a songwriter and performing, the sexism of the music industry at the time consigned her to be viewed as a “surprise” star. Some even saw her mysterious lyrics about the South as reflecting contemporary civil rights struggles. Then, in the early 1980s, Gentry simply disappeared, and has not made any public appearance since, only adding to her mystique.

Specifically billed as a reporter in her bio for the book, Murtha told me that her investigative approach is unusual for the 33 1/3 series. Rather than looking solely and directly at the record and its making as others might, Murtha uses interviews and archival records to try to understand who Gentry was, why she disappeared and how Gentry really fit into the changing social and cultural patterns of her times.

As Murtha’s book chronicles, many people are still hoping that Gentry will someday reemerge, at least briefly, into public life and provide some resolution to the many mysteries she left behind. Until that happens, Murtha believes there are still avenues to explored in the Gentry story. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Ode to Billie Joe is not Murtha’s last word on the subject – she told me that she is also  working on a documentary about Gentry. The collaboration between Murtha and Ruth Lietman of Ruthless Films is said to be in the early stages of development.

In brief: The newest volume in the 33 1/3 series by Philadelphia journalist Tara Murtha is an exciting and intelligent investigation of the career of a talented and enigmatic performer, and it also provides insight into the changing society of the mid-twentieth century United States along the way. Buy it.

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