Ode to Bobbie Gentry

Ode to Billie Joe-Bobbie Gentry
Ode to Billie Joe-Bobbie Gentry

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.”
“Ode to Billie Joe”
Bobbie Gentry

Bobbie Gentry is/was a brilliant singer/songwriter. I say “is/was” because no one knows when Gentry last wrote a song.

After scoring massive success with the haunting “Ode to Billie Joe,” Gentry pursued her music career for about ten years, hanging with Elvis and Tom Jones. One day in the late 1970s, Gentry just stopped. No one knows why. No one knows where she went. She just took herself out of the game, thank you very much. Never looked back.

While “Ode to Billie Joe” was her only major hit, anyone who digs deeper discovers a small but astonishing discography of songs that are every bit as good as her hit single. Some of them, like “Casket Vignette” and even darker and creepier than “Ode.”

Gentry’s self-imposed exile has only made her music that much more beguiling. As I listen to the Chickasaw County Girl compilation, I find myself asking over and over, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?”

I’m not the only one to ask that question. Another top-notch singer/songwriter, Jill Sobule wrote a song called “Where Is Bobbie Gentry?” for her 2009 CD, California Years. Sobule may be even more beguiled than me.

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Self-Portrait at Laurel Hill Cemetery on my 49th Birthday-June 2, 2014

Self-portrait taken on my 49th birthday at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Self-portrait taken on my 49th birthday at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

“A dreaded sunny day/so I meet you at the cemetry gates/Keats and Yates are on your side”
“Cemetry Gates”-The Smiths (lyrics by Morrissey)

Some people might find the idea of a self-portrait taken in a cemetery on one’s birthday to be depressing. Maybe even a little morbid. Not me though.

Of course, I’m not just talking any cemetery. I’m talking Laurel Hill Cemetery, in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia. Over the last few years, I have spent many hours walking through Laurel Hill. Yes, often I’ve been alone and in a reverie of some kind, but just as often I’ve been walking with fun and fascinating people, all of us drinking in the history of this National Historic Landmark. Getting to know Laurel Hill and the people connected to it-staff, volunteers, visitors-has been an immensely positive experience. Dare I say that Laurel Hill has been life-affirming? Indeed, I do.

This isn’t just any selfie. To take this photo, I sat my little red digital camera on the headstone of Robert Cornelius, a chemist/inventor who took the very first informal self-portrait-that’s right, a selfie-in 1839, just three years after the founding of Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Robert Cornelius. The First Selfie
Robert Cornelius. The First Selfie

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Christmas Tree, Phoenixville, Pa., 12/15/13

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Here is our Christmas tree. As of this moment, 9:58 p.m., Dec. 15, 2013, the tree is a work in progress. But it’s looking good.

For several days prior to this weekend, we had been talking around here about the Christmas tree. When we’d go and pick it out, when we’d bring it in the house, when we’d decorate it. The answer to all of these questions was soon, once everything else was in place.

The problem was that nothing else was falling into place. We kept saying soon, soon, soon. But the conditions for the tree still weren’t “perfect.”

I always imagine that a Christmas tree gets brought into a house and decorated when all is right in that house, when the room is ready to accept the tree, when everybody in the house has cleared their schedules to do nothing but decorate the tree.

But I learned something tonight, which is this: rather than attempt to end in some make-believe perfect world with a Christmas tree, start in your all too real imperfect world with a Christmas tree.

Don’t feel like everything has to be just right before you put up the Christmas tree. Let the Christmas tree stand amidst the imperfection of your house, and your life. Move forward from the Christmas tree to wherever your life leads.

Artist at Work, Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, 12/1/13

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My sister Lisa asked Chris to paint a paint-it-yourself Nativity set while we were down at Mom’s house for dinner tonight. Here is Chris at work.

Chris didn’t finish the project. He is meticulous about his painting, even bringing masking tape down so he could cover sections of the figures that he wasn’t painting at a given moment. He worked carefully on the figures for a few hours, politely letting us know that, even though he was given the freedom to paint the figures any way he’d like, he’d be sticking closely to how the various pieces were shown on the box.

Chris has proven that he can be quite imaginative in his art making, but I am thinking he’s a realist at heart. Probably more Wyeth than Warhol.

I’d be OK with either Wyeth or Warhol.

It was a nice evening down at Mom’s. As Chris painted we watched Miracle on 34th Street, followed by the insanely entertaining Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas special. A good conclusion to a busy Thanksgiving weekend that seems like it will lead directly into a busy Christmas season.

As for Chris, I hope he always enjoys making art the way he seems to now. Art is good for him and seeing the art Chris creates is good for the rest of us.

Small Business Saturday, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, 11/30/13

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The Saturday after Thanksgiving has been proclaimed “Small Business Saturday.” This proclamation has come down from a large credit card company that certainly stands to profit from such a day, but that doesn’t mean you need to use a credit card when patronizing local businesses.

But, anyway, I visited Phoenixville’s new local record store, Deep Groove Records, this evening. Frank, the owner, is selling all of the CDs in the store for three bucks apiece, two for $5.00. He’s doing this to make room for more vinyl because, get this: vinyl is back!

Vinyl records aren’t going to replace digital downloads, but on a certain level, vinyl has regained a commercial foothold, while compact discs seem to be on the road to uncool obsolescence. This is funny to me, as I was working in chain record store at precisely the moment that vinyl dropped off the radar in favor of CDs. The conventional wisdom at the time was the CDs would last forever, leaving vinyl a vague memory.

Now, here we are practically in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century and the once sleek and modern compact disc is increasingly being seen as a relic of the late 20th century. Meanwhile, at Deep Groove Records, the racks are filled with vinyl, with more to come.

Sarah Josepha Hale, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11/24/13

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However you choose to give thanks this week, take a moment to give a grateful thought to Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for a good chunk of the 19th century, was an amazing woman. She wrote “Mary’s Lamb,” now popularly known as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” This connects Hale to Thomas Edison, as the first words he ever recorded on his newly invented phonograph were the words to “Mary’s Lamb.” But “Mary’s Lamb” also connects Hale to singers like Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding and Paul McCartney, all of whom put their spin on the poem.

Hale also spearheaded the movement to preserve George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, and was instrumental in helping to finance the Bunker Hill Monument. Hale lived a long and interesting life and was one of the most influential women of her age.

Most relevant this week: Sarah Jospeha Hale wrote letters to five successive U.S. presidents, suggesting that Thanksgiving be proclaimed a national holiday. Lincoln was the president who finally listened and created the Thanksgiving holiday.

Here is Sarah Hale’s gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The telltale pumpkin was left at the grave by Gwen of the LHC staff, who placed it there so I could find Hale’s stone for the tour I gave on Sunday afternoon.

Mrs. Elizabeth Hutter, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 11/23/13

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I did a little bit of everything this weekend. I made some of the notebooks I create out of old VHS boxes; I went to my 30th high school reunion; I led a chilly but fun tour at Laurel Hill Cemetery; I watched the American Music Awards and wrote a Top Ten Performances list from it that is now posted on the Arizona Republic website.

In the middle of all this, I made another trip to Laurel Hill to see a presentation on prominent women of the Civil War era who are buried at LHC. Kerry Bryan is a living historian and gave the presentation in the character of one of those women, Elizabeth Hutter. Hutter was the founder of the Northern Home for Friendless Children and a staunch advocate for the orphans of soldiers and sailors. She even knew and met with President Lincoln to discuss how to help these children.

After the presentation, “Elizabeth” walked us out to the gravesite of Martha Coston, one of the other women featured in the program. Coston’s gravesite, which is close to the Laurel Hill gatehouse, is where I snapped this photo.

Kerry’s interest in the women that she highlighted runs deep and it shows. She is one of the many cool people that I’ve met through Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Roman, Jim, Mark, Rich & Joe at Olive Garden, Downingtown, Pennsylvania, 11/15/13

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Joe had this brilliant idea awhile back that he and I should get together with our three other best friends from high school for dinner. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

Tonight Roman, Jim, Mark, Joe and I met at the Olive Garden in Downingtown. Mark’s wife, Denise–who I have actually known longer than I’ve known the guys–and their two younger sons joined us as well.

Although we were all pretty tight in high school, this might very well be the first photo ever taken of all five of us. This puts us 30 years behind the Copco Lake guys (see: http://copcolake.com/five/), five friends who have managed to stage the same photo of themselves every five years since 1982, but it’s a start.

Allow me to get just a little bit sappy here: I can’t tell you how much this photo means to me. I’ll say it outright: I love these guys.

This photo represents so many adventures shared by various combinations of the five of us over the last three decades. And it serves as a reminder that, even though we’ve had times when we didn’t always keep in touch, tonight we were together and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

Thanks for 30+ years of friendship, guys! I am honored to call each of you my good friend.

21st Century Vinyl, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, 11/9/13

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Right at this moment, I am listening to the only vinyl record album in my collection that was manufactured in the 21st century. I can only be talking about Nick Lowe’s new holiday album, Quality Street, which I ordered and received in the mail just the other day. The folks at Lowe’s label were nice enough to include a complimentary copy of the album on compact disc as well, but right now, I am spinning the vinyl. Interestingly, it’s a 45 rpm album, not the typical 33 1/3.

There are three words that most succinctly describe Quality Street: “instant holiday classic.” If you have followed Lowe’s career since the early 1990s, you won’t be surprised by the laidback, but rockin’ when necessary, vibe of Quality Street. Lowe puts his spin on a few of the Christmas classics (among them: “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” “Rise Up Shepherd” and an upbeat “Silent Night”) and contributes some new tunes to the Christmas canon, including the necessary “Christmas at the Airport.”

I will listen to this record one time today. Then I’ll break it out again the day after Thanksgiving. I’m not one of those “let’s play Christmas music as soon as we possibly can” people.

So, it’s nice to be playing a new record! I heartily endorse Nick Lowe’s Quality Street!

Networking Card, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, 11/8/13

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It was 25 years ago today that R.E.M. released their album, Green. I was working in a record store and I’m certain I bought the album on this very day in 1988.

I was a different person then, of course. I had graduated from college in May and was working at the store. I was also either beginning to work at the library of Neumann College or would soon be doing so.

One thing that I was not doing was looking for any sort of “serious” job. This probably seems like a counterintuitive (read: stupid) move for a recent college graduate, but it’s where I was in 1988.

My resistance to “real jobs” took some weird forms. For example, I disliked and actively ridiculed the idea of “networking.” Yuppies were all the rage at the time and, in trying to figure out my 23-year old psyche, I’m thinking that networking probably seemed like an inherently yuppie concept. Plus, the “means to an end” nature of it all seemed contrived to me, I think. On top of all this, I was, and sometimes still am, awkward in social situations.

Now, though, I think the idea of networking–meeting people and talking to them–is pretty damn cool. This evening, I even scored a deal on some “networking cards.” Would you like to network?