Originally posted August 31, 2007
Our kitchen radio when I was growing up was already old. It was a boxy thing with a shell of deep brown and gold plastic with a long, clear plastic window for the AM tuner. It had two knobs: on/off and tuning. No switch for FM, nothing to adjust the treble or the bass. It was either on or off. When you turned it on, it took a few minutes for the tubes to warm up.
The tuner was balky. Sometimes three or four rotations of the tuning knob moved the red indicator a half-inch; sometimes one rotation moved it an inch. Changing the station was a test of tenacity and finesse, and it was something that was rarely done, not just because it was difficult to find another station. The radio tuner was rarely changed because – as in many homes in Minnesota – the kitchen radio was almost always tuned to WCCO 830, the Twin Cities’ beacon.
At that time, there weren’t nearly as many radio stations as there are now. The FM band was home to only a few, and they mostly played what was called “beautiful music,” fit for elevators and dentists’ offices. On the AM dial, there were more stations, but still not near as many as today. And the further you lived from the Twin Cities, the less choice you had. As a result, most folks in outstate Minnesota – and at the time, that would have included St. Cloud, seventy miles from Minneapolis – tuned their radios to WCCO and kept them there.
At our home, about the only time we listened to the kitchen radio was in the morning, eating breakfast at seven o’clock before Dad went off to the college (later a university) and my sister and I headed off to school. As we drank our juice and milk and ate our cereal – quite often hot cereal during the Minnesota winter – we heard the world news for fifteen minutes, then the local and state news for ten minutes, and finally, at 7:25, five minutes of sports.
As the Sixties wore on, my sister – three years older than I – sometimes changed the radio on weekends or during summer days, setting the tuner carefully on 630 to bring KDWB’s Top 40 into the kitchen. And as the Sixties wore on even further and I also became interested in pop music, we each had our own radio and there was no need to change the station in the kitchen. So the radio remained tuned to WCCO for the rest of its long life. (It died sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, not long after I left home.)
WCCO was fine with me for most of the Sixties, though. Besides the five minutes of sports in the morning – and the school closing announcements on days of heavy snow – the only thing I needed from the radio was play-by-play sports. WCCO carried the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota Vikings, the University of Minnesota football and basketball teams, and – starting in the fall of 1967 – the Minnesota North Stars. Many afternoons and evenings, I’d take the radio from its normal place – tucked in a corner of the kitchen counter – and move it to the kitchen table. I’d sit and read, bent over the table, the volume set fairly low, and listen to one game or another.
One evening in early 1968, when I was fourteen, I had the volume turned up a little higher than usual. I was alone in the house, my parents and sister having gone to some event at Tech High, where my sister was a senior. The North Stars were playing that evening, and during one of the breaks between periods, the little feature called “Sports Quiz” came on. I perked up.
“What sport,” the announcer asked, “is played in an enclosed court with a rubber ball and no racquets?”
Just as he finished his question, my sister came in the back door. I looked at the radio and blurted, “Handball! Handball!”
My sister looked at me oddly.
And the radio said, “That’s right! Handball!”
Her chin dropped, and I collapsed in giggles.
Whenever I tell that tale – and I’ve told it many times over the years – I’m reminded of another radio moment that happened the next June. My sister and I were in the kitchen, doing dishes after lunch, with the radio tuned to KDWB. The song ended, and the DJ began some patter about how important the day before had been.
“You know what yesterday was, don’t you?” he asked through the speaker. “You have to know what yesterday was. It was a big deal.” He paused. “So what was yesterday?”
There came a rhythmic figure picked on a guitar, with the end of the figure bringing in just a little bit of strings. It repeated, and then the voice told us what yesterday was:
“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day . . .”
And my sister and I laughed and put away the dishes to the sounds of Bobbie Gentry and her Faulknerian tale of a Mississippi mystery surrounded by the mundane. The song was, of course, “Ode to Billie Joe,” a No. 1 hit the year before and the centerpiece of Gentry’s album of the same title, which also reached the top spot on the charts.
Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe 
I Saw An Angel Die
Chickasaw County Child
Papa, Woncha Take Me To Town With You?
Hurry, Tuesday Child
Ode to Billie Joe
It’s a pretty good album. If it has a flaw, it’s that Gentry – at the start of her career – didn’t quite have enough distinctive material for a full album. Several of the songs start with guitar figures similar to the one that opens “Ode to Billie Joe.” But there are some gems here.
“Mississippi Delta” rocks along, fittingly, a little gritty and swampy. “Chickasaw County Child,” although it has the musical weakness noted above, still works lyrically, setting out details to paint a larger picture, just the title track does. “I Saw An Angel Die” is a gentle piece that works well, too. “Niki Hoeky,” the only tune on the album not written by Gentry, works for the most part, with its surreal lyric, although it, too, starts with a guitar figure similar to that from “Ode to Billie Joe.”
The tracks as listed above are in the order that they were on my copy of the LP. Oddly enough, the track list on the back of the record jacket is different, with – among other changes – Side Two starting with “Ode to Billie Joe” instead of ending with it. In addition, “I Saw An Angel Die” is called “An Angel Died” on the jacket, and “Papa, Woncha Take Me To Town With You?” is listed as “Papa, Won’t You Take Me To Town With You?”
This rip was one of the first albums I found on the ’Net when I became aware of music blogs about a year ago. If I could remember where I got it, I’d say “Thanks!”
Tags: Bobbie Gentry