Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ode to Billie Joe

I can't honestly say it is one of my favorite songs, but "Ode to Billie Joe" is a haunting, Southern Gothic-type song that gets stuck in my brain for days when I hear it. The song, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, was released in 1967 and shot straight to number one on the charts. I was six at the time.

"Ode to Billie Joe" is a story-song. Our young, female narrator tells the story of how she heard the news of Billie Joe McAllister's suicide. There's a great deal of mystery about the song: What was the relationship of Billie Joe and the narrator? What did they throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Bobby Gentry has stated that she didn't have motives for what happened in the song, that the whole point was not the suicide but the matter-of-factness of the family discussion, "a study in unconscious cruelty."

The song was made into a movie (never a good idea) in 1976, called Ode to Billy Joe (different spelling.) It was directed by Max Baer Jr. (Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies) and starred Robby Benson as Billy Joe and Glynnis O'Conner (as our narrator, now named Bobbie Lee Hartley.)

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out chopping cotton and my brother was baling hay.
And at dinner time we stopped, and 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, "I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge.
Today, Billy Joe McAllister 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 nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe McAllister'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 talking 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 cooking 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 something off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

A year has come and 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 picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.


Carly said...

I remember this song. It was a big haunting. My sister, who is 10 years older then me, used to play it a lot. It doesn't seem like it was released that long ago... jeepers I am getting old! LOL.

fdtate said...

Haunting is a good word to describe this song. Between the lyrics and Bobby Gentry's throaty voice, it's quite moving.