Today is “the third of June,” and since I am not in the Delta, I can’t tell you if it is sleepy or dusty this year. Most likely, it is both. But I can tell you that each year on that date, the song that begins by telling us what day a famous, fictitious mystery occurred runs through my mind like the river that created the fertile soil perfect for growing cotton in my home state, Mississippi. Ode to Billy Joe conjures fond memories of seeing the songwriter who made it famous, Bobbie Gentry, in concert, while the song was still high on the charts.
As I have written before, Jackson, Mississippi has always been a city that appreciates the arts. During the 1960s, when I lived there as a boy, my mother made sure to take me to as many concerts as possible. She took me to see everyone from Carl and Pearl Butler and the Wilburn Brothers to Andy Griffith, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Andy Williams.
Among my fondest memories was the concert at the Mississippi Coliseum that featured one of my heroes, Tennessee Ernie Ford. I still have our old Sixteen Tons “thirty-three,” (as my mom called LP vinyl records) which has a crack in it from all the times we played it in our house. In looking at it now, I realize that in addition to the Merle Travis-penned title song and Woody Guthrie’s Philadelphia Lawyer, several of the other songs were written by Ford, including my second favorite on that album, Shotgun Boogie.
Bobbie Gentry was Tennessee Ernie’s opening act. Ode to Billie Joe had recently been released and she was the toast of Mississippi (and the rest of the country). This was an extra treat for us in Jackson since her song brought something about Mississippi to the national stage besides civil rights conflicts. Her literate, well-written and superbly performed record produced smiles and positive energy about our state around the world.
She wore a baby blue pant suit and delighted the audience with her kind words about Mississippi and other musical references including the song Mississippi Delta, the flip side of Ode to Billy Joe. Years later, when a movie based on her hit was released, she told Johnny Carson that Mississippi Delta was originally the “A” side of the record but “Billy Joe” ran away with programmers’ and audiences’ hearts.
In addition to the songs she had recorded, Gentry sang the first song she ever wrote. It was about her dog, “Sergeant.” I especially liked that one because I also had a dog named Sergeant. I’ll always remember the lyrics to her song:
“Sergeant, Sergeant, Sergeant, Sergeant, my dog Sergeant is a good dog.”
And then, she sang “THE song.” Sitting on a wooden stool playing a classical guitar, she played Ode to Billie Joe to several thousand mesmerized fans. I probably don’t need to tell you that she received a standing ovation. Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe in Mississippi. What a moment.
The importance of being Ernie
Other artists may have been hesitant to follow such a performance but if Tennessee Ernie Ford was nervous, he never showed it. He confidently walked on stage holding something I had never seen before – a wireless microphone. It had a little antenna that transmitted his voice to the sound system. “Neat,” I remember thinking. His opening number was Chuck Berry’s upbeat song, Memphis, Tennessee, and the “ol’ pea-picker” proceeded to charm an audience that had already witnessed greatness just a few minutes earlier.
When Sixteen Tons arrived on the set list, Ford started by snapping his fingers and asking the audience to snap, too. The coliseum has a total capacity of about 10,000. It was fairly full that day, and that show might have been a sell-out. That many people snapping their fingers in time with Ernie was impressive. From the first snap to the last “owe my soul,” the lyric that slows down, we stayed with him. As the standing ovation began, Ford said, “I could have used y’all on the record!” More thunderous applause.
From the Tallahatchie Bridge to the Company Store, all of us who were there were transported from Jackson to the Delta and the coal mines for a couple of hours of pure enjoyment. When times like that happen, the magic of music and the good will it can provide become tangible. As do the vivid memories years later for music lovers like me.
Text and photo copyright 2015 by Les Kerr. Click here to visit Les Kerr’s CD and download catalogue!
Originally published June 4, 2015