Monday, June 24, 2019

Ode to Billie Joe - Bobby Gentry

I've mentioned many times AM's obsession with finding some kind of connection between one post and the next, whether that connection is 1969 or literature or people Joni Mitchell slept with. I mentioned getting a 1961 Magnavox Collaro turntable, and so now every extra dollar goes towards vinyl. I suddenly have my own little connections that may not be as readily apparent as the ones you're used to. The other day, for instance, for $2.99 each, I got The Mason William Phonograph Record, a favorite when I was a kid ("Classical Gas"), Cat Stevens' Buddha and the Chocolate Box and Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe, if only for the sentimental value. Turns out, the title track is classic Southern-American Gothic poetry that achieves its poetic value through subordination of event to situation. "Ode to Billie Joe" seems a simple narration of events, journalism-style: the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge, Billie Joe jumping off the bridge, a pretty vivid picture. Yet the listener doesn't know what the pair are throwing off the bridge and we don't know why Billie Joe killed hisseff. What is revealed with utter clarity is the narrator's situation: she is spoken to and spoken about within the poem, but she herself is never allowed to speak; she is closely monitored (told to wipe her feet, interrogated for not eating, observed and reported on) but not recognized at all; she is kept in place by society, but is afforded no place in that society; on and on. In Aristotelian/English teacher terms, Bobbie Gentry's hit inverts the tragic focus on mythos for a lyric focus on ethos. It takes to heart Emily Dickinson's advice to "tell all the truth but tell it slant."

Gentry has said that she doesn't know what Billy Jo (the spelling in the lyrics) and the girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, which seems likely; it's also not clear, for example, that Margaret Mitchell knew any more about the future of Rhett and Scarlett than her readers. "Tomorrow is another day" tells us only that Scarlett isn't defeated and that all things are possible. There's a bit of Schrodinger's cat in there too. Gentry's allusions/illusions leave a number of possibilities open, none of them definitive. She has said that the lyrics focus on the cold, nonchalant way the girl's family discusses Billy Joe's suicide, and with this, Gentry captures the essence of small-town life and gossip. With the Vietnam War and anti-war protests dominating the news, the family turns its attention to something local that each of them knows something about. Papa says Billy Joe "never had a lick of sense," Brother says he talked to Billy Joe after church last Sunday night and ran into him at the sawmill, and Mama mentions that the new preacher saw a girl who looked a lot like her daughter with Billy Joe throwing something off the bridge. All of these references, and the casual ones to what seems to be a tragic suicide, are interspersed with "pass the biscuits, please" and "I'll have another piece of apple pie." Cheesy? No way; that’s poetry thar! – Sincerely, B. Gentry.

Gentry's lyrics unveil the underlying story. Brother says, "You know, it don’t seem right," indicating that Billy Joe didn't seem suicidal. Now there are two mysteries: What did he (and the girl) throw off the bridge, and why did he suddenly kill himself? Are the two events related? How? As well, the girl's identity does not seem to be part of the mystery. She is quiet during the conversation and doesn't even comment when Brother mentions a prank played on her, meanwhile her mother notices her lack of appetite. If she is the girl who was with Billie Joe (and come on, she is), she keeps it to herself and doesn't want anyone to know . Her family, consciously or unconsciously, adds to her feelings of grief and possibly her guilt.

What makes "Ode to Billie Joe" poetic is the spare but effective way in which the story is told. Nothing is stated, leaving much to be inferred. By the end, through only a few details, the listener (or reader) can see how the family might represent the decline of small-town farming America. With the father dead, Brother abandons the farm for his wife and their new store in town, and the mother and daughter are left with their grief for their respective losses. Gentry doesn't describe Choctaw Ridge or the Tallahatchie Bridge, but we don't need to know what they look like for them to serve as the song's emotional center. The rhythm of the names, combined with their repetition, sears them into our memories. Gentry once said the song was really about indifference, and was, as she described it "A study in unconscious cruelty." She went on to say, "Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people's reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and, later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief." 

"Ode to Billie Joe" was Gentry's debut single, recorded in 40 minutes on July 10 1967. Gentry accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and strings were added later. The original version of the song was 7 minutes, cut down to 4 and released it as a single. The song sold over 3 million copies and Gentry won 3 Grammy awards, including Best Artist, the first country artist to win the award. And for me, pretty good score for $2.99.


It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay.
And at dinner time we stopped and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door, "Y'all remember to wipe your feet."
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Papa said to mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
"Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please."
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow."
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."
Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going 'round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.