Saturday, December 27, 2014

An Obscure Conqueror of Fame

Tara Murtha’s contribution to Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 series on classic albums, Ode to Billie Joe, is something of a sleight of hand. The monograph devotes only three pages to the titular LP. Instead, the primary focus is on the few known facts about Bobbie Gentry prior to her spectacular rise to international fame in 1967, the disputed authorship of “Ode to Billie Joe,” and Gentry’s reclusive life beginning about 1980. Happily, Murtha’s monograph demonstrates the value of impeccable research. The book’s fundamental thesis, how a young woman originally from Mississippi named Roberta Lee Streeter reinvented herself as Bobbie Gentry, is a fascinating read. Although she created an image of herself as a girl from the Mississippi Delta, a regional singer who emerged “out of a swamp fog” suddenly to appear on television (p. 5), Gentry in fact spent most of her life in Southern California, moving there in the mid 1950s at age 13. We are set up to expect an answer to the question, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?”, but we never get it. There is no final revelation, no answer to the question, because Bobbie Gentry has chosen to remain silent. She emerged from the fog, as it were, and then stepped back into it. For despite Murtha’s extensive and impressive research, Bobbie Gentry remains, to quote Joseph Conrad, “an obscure conqueror of fame,” a stubbornly inscrutable figure who in fact wrote no classic albums but one classic song. Actually, two classic songs, the other one being “Fancy,” a 1991 hit for Reba McEntire. But since Gentry had largely vanished from pop history by then, and because Gentry’s best album, Fancy (1970), was long out-of-print, McEntire effectively took possession of the song. Now 72 (Murtha points out that Gentry was born in 1942, not 1944 as is widely published), Gentry spent about fourteen years of her life as a star before retreating into obscurity, spending almost exactly the same time in the spotlight as another famous recluse, Greta Garbo.

But Garbo remained childless; Gentry did not. Murtha reports that Gentry married singer/comedian Jim Stafford on 15 October 1978. The next year, a son, Tyler, was born to them, and shortly after that, the marriage (her third) broke up. “In 1980,” Murtha writes, “Gentry was a 38-year-old single mother” (p. 125). If one were to venture reasons for Gentry’s decision to end her career, a rather obvious reason is the birth of her son: the end of her career coincides with the birth of her son. Another possible reason is that Las Vegas, where she entertained for most of the 1970s, lost its allure due to the death of Elvis in 1977 (Gentry became friends with Elvis in the 70s and also performed as “the female Elvis” as part of her stage show). As an artist she may have said all she wished to say, and decided, given the circumstances, it was time to move on.

Murtha’s book raises some practical and theoretical questions about the process of canonization, as well as the future direction of the 33 1/3 series that I’d like, briefly, to sketch out:

The practical question is whether the 33 1/3 series will, in the future, publish books on an artist largely famous for one song. With the exception of “Fancy,” Gentry’s subsequent albums included more and more cover versions, rendering them less significant achievements. As I mentioned earlier, the book is something of a sleight of hand, because it’s not about the album, Ode to Billie Joe, per se, but about an enigmatic artist and her one justly famous song (with a brief chapter devoted to the film inspired by it). While you can’t criticize a book for what it didn’t set out to do, one profitable direction might have been the intertextual linkage, pointed out by Greil Marcus, that “Ode to Billie Joe” has with “Long Black Veil”: “The singer [of 'Ode to Billie Joe'] is like the woman who walks the hills in 'Long Black Veil': she knows why Billie Joe went to his death, she knows what they threw into the black water, but . . . she [will] not tell . . . .” (The Old, Weird America, p. 141). The songs are different in that in “Long Black Veil” the dead narrator reveals the crime for which he was found guilty, but most importantly, both songs share the idea of the guilty secret. I mention this only to point out that if you wish to unpack an enigmatic song, intertextual analysis is essential. Murtha does acknowledge, however, the answer song to “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Answer to ‘Ode’,” released as “Clothesline Saga” on the official Basement Tapes (1975). (See the chapter, “Kill Devil Hills,” in Marcus’s The Old, Weird America.)

Theoretically speaking, the book makes explicit an observation made by Robert Christgau over a decade ago, that the idea of a rock canon is “a complete absurdity.” It has never been completely clear whether at its inception the 33 1/3 book series set out to publish critical analyses of canonical rock albums, or (more likely, in retrospect) sought to engage in journalistic canonization. In any case, the economics of the publishing industry have dictated the series become more democratic in its selection process, publishing studies of albums that are cult classics (Spiderland), are critically acclaimed commercial failures (Song Cycle), and are commercially successful contemporary works (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). I should add that while economics has a good to deal with it, the title selection also reveals how we live in an age of aphorisms (statements of personal taste) rather than one of axioms (universally accepted truths that are potentially falsifiable). Hence in every instance the author reveals the reasons behind his or her personal attachment to the album under discussion, meaning the author is also a fan as well as a critic. I suspect the series will continue to rely on critical approaches based on the principles of race-, sex-, and gender-based criticism initially developed in the 1970s, but will also rely on Bakhtinian aesthetics (the artifice of social life, the public persona as an invention) in order to rehabilitate the reputation of neglected works and artists, Bobbie Gentry being a perfect illustration.

Still, I admire Tara Murtha’s book and welcome it as an important addition to the series.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I enjoyed the article but would argue Gentry did indeed release classic albums. In 2000, Mojo magazine listed The Delta Sweete as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Even master jazz pianist, Bill Evans, covered Gentry's, composition from the set, Mornin' Glory, as the opening track on his historic, 'Live In Tokyo' album. He played the song in in every concert during the last years of his brilliant career..