Monday, September 15, 2014

Battle of the Bands: "Ode to Billy Joe"

It's time again for the "Battle of the Bands (BOTB)," the blogging event originally started by Stephen T. McCarthy and FarAwayEyes back in August of 2013. It occurs twice every month -- on the 1st and the 15th -- and is a fun way to share and discuss music. Each of the bloggers taking part offers their  readers a choice of two (or occasionally more) versions of the same song, performed by different recording artists. And the readers get to vote for their favorite rendition.

 Catch-up from Last BOTB

As has happened before, things have been hectic lately and I didn't get a summary post up from my last BOTB battle, so let me close that one out before starting a new one. In that last BOTB, I went for the tune, "Concrete Jungle," where I was expecting a one-sided battle, and it did end up being pretty heavily weighted towards Bob Marley (with Wayne Perkins playing guitar).  My vote also goes towards that original version.  I definitely like Ceu's, and think the overall vibe is pretty cool, but Bob (and Wayne with Chris Blackwell's production) easily gets my vote -- and I doubt anyone is going to be surprised. So in summary, that gives Bob Marley a pretty solid win at 8 to 3.

I expected Bob to win, although I must admit that a few people surprised me when they voted for Ceu.  But really, that's OK -- musical taste is entirely subjective. No matter how much sophisticated justification any person, even a professional "critic," tries to wrap their review in, every critique ultimately boils down to, "well, this is just what I like."

A big reason I went with "Concrete Jungle" was to highlight the uncredited playing of relatively-unknown guitarist Wayne Perkins, and I hope everyone enjoyed learning a little bit about him. This time I'm again offering a battle featuring a guitarist who is not widely known, but unlike Wayne (whose playing most people seem to appreciate), this guitarist himself is often a topic of radically opposed opinions.

And frankly, I have no idea how this battle will turn out.

Let the New Battle Begin!

In 1967, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry released a song from her debut album that reached #1 on the pop charts, as did the album itself -- both entitled "Ode to Billie Joe".  A simple, casually-sung song with deeper lyrics about indifference in the face of suicide and hidden family drama, it resonated well with the listeners of that era.  Originally intended as an eleven-verse 7-minute song, verses were removed and it was redone as a potential single.  The shortened version heightened the mystery by not revealing why Bill Joe jumped off the bridge, or what he and the narrator were seen throwing of it earlier.  Here's the 1967 version done by Bobbie Gentry:

This is one of those songs that has been covered a gazillion times (and many of them are great covers -- I may revisit this song again for some future BOTB).  The song even inspired a book and a 1976 movie starring Robbie Benson and Glynnis O'Connor which was directed by Max Baer, Jr. ("Jethro Bodine" from the old Beverly Hillbillies TV show).  In the book and movie, author Herman Raucher took Bobbie Gentry's song and added his own "repressed-homosexuality" rationale for Billy Joe's suicide -- Bobbie Gentry specifically never gave a reason, nor did she ever say what Billy Joe and his girlfriend threw off the bridge.  The ambiguity allowed each person to think of their own reason, and she stressed that it really wasn't even important -- the "point" of the song was the family's indifference, as they sit there nonchalantly discussing the boy's suicide while not even recognizing their daughter was his girlfriend.  HERE and HERE are some additional articles about her and the song.

I find it interesting how many ways this song touches on the topics of personal opinions -- in the song, the family casually voices theirs about Billy Joe without realizing the girlfriend is right there; the ambiguity Bobbie Gentry left in the song allows each listener to form their own opinions as to why Billy Joe committed suicide; the rationale imagined by Herman Raucher evokes strong opinions; and the movie itself is both panned or loved, depending on who's review you read (most critics leaned towards the "panned" side).

Henry Kaiser is a guitarist who also evokes strong opinions -- or at least he does among the people who know about him.  He has appeared on over 250 albums, and yet most people have never heard of him.  But when they do hear him play, they tend to form opinions pretty quickly. Kaiser leans towards experimentation, "outside" playing, effects-laden sounds, and has typically been branded an "avant-garde" guitarist. People I've introduced Kaiser to have usually either loved him or hated him.

Frankly, I go back and forth myself -- some of his stuff I really like, and some just strikes me as jarring and discordant.  But he's covered so much ground, played with so many highly-talented people, and experimented in so many ways, I have to respect him for continually trying to stretch both himself and the ears of his listeners. HERE and HERE are some positive introductions to the world of Henry Kaiser. But if you look on YouTube, you can also find video of him where he is declared to be the "Worst Guitarist Ever."

In 1988, Henry Kaiser released an album with his band at the time called "Those Who Know History are Doomed to Repeat It".  It was essentially a "cover album" and remains my favorite Kaiser album (although his "Yo Miles" tribute to Miles Davis with Wadada Leo Smith is also interesting, as are his multiple albums with David Lindley).  'History' has an awesome long cover of the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" melding into "The Other One," but that's much too long of a piece for any BOTB battle (many of the other covers are Captain Beefheart songs, so that pretty much tells you where Henry's coming from).

Also on "History," Henry Kaiser and the band also do a cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe,"  and I think it is one of the better things I've heard from Henry Kaiser.  The interplay between his crazy-vibrato-bar guitar and the violins is great, that wild second solo beginning at the 5:20 point gives me goosebumps, and the ending jam is excellent. Unfortunately, the album is out of print, and I couldn't find the track on You Tube, so I had to make my own video.   So below is the video I made from the song, with images of Kaiser, various shots of bridges over the Tallahatchie River, and one of Bobbie Gentry.  Take a listen and see what you think:

Your Vote

So there you go -- now it's your turn to express your opinion: Which appeals to you more?  The sparse, simply, evocative original by Bobbie Gentry, or the updated, edgy version by Henry Kaiser with the outlandish guitar?

I invite you to listen to each version and give them a chance. And try not to focus on the video images too much (close your eyes if you must) -- the battle is about the music, not the video production.

After listening, please vote in the comments as to which version you think is best, or which speaks to you the deepest. Feel free to also share as much as you would like about how any of the above recordings strike you, even if it's less than positive.

Then -- be sure to check out the other BOTB bloggers to vote on their battles:

Thank you very much for listening and for voting -- come back and visit again the end of next week to find out how the voting has gone.  I'll make a post then with my own vote and also announce the winner.

And in the meantime -- stay off the Tallahatchie Bridge!  Ain't nothin' worth jumpin' off it!  Call someone -- anyone.  Heck, call me and I'll help talk you off it!


  1. It's a big twangy, but I like the second one better - has more force to it.
    And you can add my name - I jumped back into BOTB today!

    1. Thanks, Alex! I've updated the list to include your blog -- welcome back to the BOTB! And that's one vote for Henry Kaiser.

  2. I think I may remember this song from way back in the day, but I was a youngster when Bobbie Gentry released it. The remake is edgier than I care for given the subject of a kid's suicide. It lacks the sensitivity of the first with the softer melody and slower pace of the song. I guess you probably know which song is getting my vote, but if you don't then give Bobbie Gentry a tally from me! Thanks for stopping by & voting!

    1. Thank you for the same thing, Cathy! I can understand the reasons for your choice.

      -- Bobbie Gentry 1, Henry Kaiser 1

  3. CHRIS ~
    I'm old enough to remember when 'ODE TO BILLIE JOE' was getting a lot of AM radio play. I bought an LP with that song on it some years later. Loved it then; love it now. I also remember seeing the movie with Robbie Benson but I can't recall much about it other than that Benson played Billie Joe.

    I always liked the mystery of the song too: Why did he jump and what were they throwing off the bridge? Leaving those answers out always made the song more intriguing and appealing to me.

    I certainly didn't NEED to hear Bobby Gentry sing it, 'cause I already know it so well. But I played it anyway just for the pleasure of it. (Never heard her sing it live before, either.)

    For some reason which I can't even recall, I mentioned this song to my brother Nappy a couple weeks ago. I even sang the chorus through once. Hmmm... Weird coincidence.

    Interesting match-up, even though this one's a no-brainer for me. I'd never heard of Henry Kaiser before, and there's no question he knows how to play that guitar. But I felt all that fancy fretwork was really at cross-purposes to the sentiment and mood of this song's lyrics.

    My vote was never in question, but I really did find some of his playing earlier in the song to be "interesting". But the track was too long and then in the last quarter of it or so, Kaiser's playing degenerates into just a mess of - to my ears - purposeless sound effects and "Look At Me, Everybody" excessiveness. I let the song play to the end but, to be honest, I was finished with it before IT was finished.

    Easy win of my vote by Bobbie Gentry.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

    1. "Interesting" alternating with "purposeless sound effects and 'Look At Me, Everybody" excessiveness." I think you've basically described avant-garde guitar pretty well, Mr. McCarthy. It meshes with my attitude of either liking or hating it -- and even on the same song, depending on my mood when I'm hearing it.

      I thought this would be a good pairing for this BOTB, especially one with an underlying theme of "Evoking strong opinions." Thanks for giving Henry a full opportunity, but I totally get why you'd go with Bobbie.

      -- Bobbie Gentry 2, Henry Kaiser 1

  4. This is a pretty great song. I had no idea so many covers had been done of it. I had the Bobbie Gentry album back then and used to like looking at the cover--she looked so fine. The song generated some good speculative discussion back then.

    Kaiser's version is quite the tour-de-force. It's very well performed though perhaps a bit showy offy. That's probably the point from what you say about Kaiser's recordings in general. I'm not familiar with his music, but it sounds like something I'd enjoy listening to it.

    On this song however, Bobbie's got it right. She creates a lazy atmosphere that's more appropriate for depicting the gossip and going's on of smalltown country folk. Definitely Bobbie Gentry for me on this song.

    Tossing It Out

    1. I'm glad you found Henry Kaiser interesting -- check out some of his other music on You Tube or at Amazon. You'll find this is probably one of his most accessible pieces. ;)

      But absolutely get the love for Bobbie Gentry. This was a good song, and I've seen the album cover (and other photos), so I understand that aspect, also. ;)

      -- Bobbie 3, Henry 1

  5. No question, Bobbie Gentry's original is my version of choice. I identify it so much with her that any version other than it is just not all that good. Nice try, though.

    John Holton
    The Sound Of One Hand Typing

    1. Alright -- another strong vote for Bobbie!

      -- Bobbie 4, Henry 1

  6. I didn't know either version before checking out this post, but I'd say the Henry Kaiser version is my fave. And yet I can really appreciate that Bobbie Gentry wrote her own songs, which apparently was very unusual back then - and sadly is still kind of unusual now, with popular music anyway. ;)

    1. I definitely respect an artist who creates their own material. A musician who only does songs written by others is like a painter who only colors in the lines drawn by another artist. But that might kind of an strong statement for me to make during a BOTB post, where the whole point is cover songs, lol! There's always room for an artist who takes old material and turns it into something new and unique. And Kaiser is definitely unique. ;)

      -- Bobbie 4, Henry 2

  7. No contest for me-I didn't like Bobbie Gentry's song then, and my opinion has not changed over 40 years.

    A vote for Kaiser.

    1. And a strong anti-Bobbie vote! Thanks for helping to make the bout interesting, Larry!

      -- Bobbie, 4, Henry 3

  8. Bobbie Gentry gets my vote it is a classic case of less is more. I do give Kaiser credit for adding more to the song and really making the song his groups.

  9. StMc has already expressed my feelings about this song. Though he was a better man than I (well, I am not a man, but...) because he listened to the whole Kaiser version. I made it to the 8:35 mark, but I knew a couple of minutes in that I preferred the Bobbie Gentry version. Did you notice at the 2:35 mark it sounds for just a few seconds like The Devil Went Down To Georgia??? It recurs again, but I couldn't tell you where. The long and the short was that it was too much guitar for this song. The strength is in the lyrics. The second one feels like it is a competition: guitar vs. lyrics.

    1. Hey -- don't be hard on yourself. Giving Henry Kaiser 8-1/2 minutes is more than a lot of people do, especially on much of his "typical" material. Check out some of the other videos of his you can find on YouTube.... ;)

      But I absolutely get your point of view, Robin. Bobbie wrote a great song that works very well without guitar solos.

      -- Bobbie 6, Henry 3

  10. Oh, my vote goes to Bobbie Gentry.

    1. Yeah, I figured and marked you down that way... ;)

  11. Of course I'm late, and most likely everything that could or should be said has already done been, but I'll give you my thoughts anyway.

    I remember this song. I remember the discussions it evoked. I liked the unknown factors about it. I really like the down home feel of the local farm gossip. You know those kinds that knew everything except what was right under their noses or going on in their own family. I have relative like that - down home farmers who love nothing more that to gossip about the neighbors.

    Anyway...Bobbie's simple repetitive melody lends itself wonderfully to this 'story' song as it unfolds with it's everyday simple tasks punctuated by and 'oh by the way...'

    There's always some talent out there who can do it bigger but not necessarily better. I like the original. give my vote to Bobbie Gentry.

    1. No worries, FAE -- I know things have been hectic for you. I'm AWOL from blogging far too often myself. Heck, if it wasn't for BOTB, I wouldn't have much of a blog these days for you to even be late to, LOL!

      I pretty much had you pegged for a Bobbie Gentry vote. But I'm never 100% certain -- I've been surprised before in BOTB responses. ;)

      But you're right about the wonderful understated way Bobbie Gentry tells the story in the song.

      That brings it to:

      -- Bobbie 7, Henry 3

  12. So.... Tomorrow is October 1st and yet again, I did not get a summary post up between this BOTB entry and tomorrow's. I think the easiest thing is simply, ala StevieMac's style, to give my "parting thoughts" on this BOTB here in the comments. Then tomorrow, I'll post an all-new BOTB post for the 1st.

    I wasn't sure how this battle would turn out when I posted it -- I remember the original song back from the 60's, but I was just a kid then, and didn't have much invested in it as "the original". And as a guitarist, I have to confess that I can easily swing between liking Henry Kaiser's work, tolerating it, giving a shrug at it, scratching my head at it, and strongly disliking it. Much depends on the piece in question and my mood at the time.

    So I had no strong leaning towards either one here -- I thought it was a very interesting contrast in the match-up, though.

    I like the gentle simplicity of Bobbie Gentry's singing, I admire the fact that she wrote and sang her own material, and I really like the ambiguity and subtext of the lyrics. But musically, there's really not a lot there -- a few chords and some guitar strumming with some snippets of strings added on top.

    On the other hand, I think "Ode to Billy Joe" is one of HK's most accessible pieces. There's clear structure, a defined band, familiar lyrics and smooth singing, and only small doses of freak-out outside guitar playing. This interpretation of the song adds much more musical structure, a little more energy, interacting violin parts, tasty fills from all the instruments, and two fun solos. I'm not sure, but I believe HK doesn't even take the first one -- the guitar sounds much more like the rhythm guitarist. The second one is DEFINITELY Kaiser, though. And I admit that it's my favorite bit of his playing that I've heard.

    Some comments has suggested that adding the guitars and upping the energy of the song might have detracted from the lyrics, but in a lot of ways, I think it actually helps accentuate them. There is a lot of emotional subtext and tension and repressed anger and depression in those lyrics, and I think bringing some of that emotion out via a driving interpretation of the song kind of helps.

    But I also really like Bobbie's understated way she calmly sings, echoing the subtle "oh by the way" aspect of the dialogue in the song.

    Still, I have to give the edge to Kaiser in this battle. Not that it matters. In the end, it's Bobbie's by a healthy 7-to-4 win.

    See you tomorrow for a new BOTB! But I have to warn you -- it could be the last time!


Don't be shy -- feel free to comment. I really appreciate your thoughts.