I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.
Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.
It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.