50 Years Later, “Ode to Billie Joe” Still Haunts

“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 walked back to the house to eat/And Mama hollered out the back door, Y’all, remember to wipe your feet’/And then she said, ‘I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge/Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’.”

Fifty summers ago, the psychedelic era was launched in June with the release of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Within the next ten weeks, rock and roll’s roulette wheel hit paydirt on almost a daily basis as an avalanche of superlative music catapulted from the soul of a young generation that that had begun to yearn for peace, love, and understanding.

For the first time, rock and rollers were joyfully listening to a host of rousing debut albums by the likes of Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin; the Grateful Dead; the Doors; Creedence Clearwater Revival; the Jimi Hendrix Experience; and the Jefferson Airplane. New performers such as Van Morrison; Joni Mitchell; Laura Nyro; Janis Ian; Linda Ronstadt; Gordon Lightfoot; and Grace Slick were all in the midst of generating their initial releases. In addition, a number of veteran stars were simultaneously producing their most celebrated tracks to date including Jackie Wilson; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Tammi Terrell; Stevie Wonder; the Marvelettes; the Mama and the Papas; the Lovin Spoonful; and James Brown. From “All You Need is Love,” to “Light My Fire;” from Somebody to Love” to “(Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher;” from “Purple Haze” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a perfect storm of art, politics, and culture merged to define an entire era.

Despite the incandescence of such disparate musical masters, the tune that was ultimately named 1967’s “Song of the Year” was so unlikely that uber rock critic Lester Bangs later called it, “the most unlikely hit in the history of rock music.” At the time, its mystic chords wove such a haunting tale of loss that Janis Joplin said that she felt nauseous after hearing it for the first time.

The song, of course, was “Ode to Billie Joe,” composed and recorded by a previously obscure singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi named Bobbie Gentry. As someone who faithfully listened to the Top 40 on AM radio back then, I distinctly remember the first time I heard the tune in August 1967. While I wasn’t sick to my stomach like Janis had been, I felt as if Scout Finch had somehow emerged as a pop singer. After all, I had just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the vernacular and context of the song were as Southern as fried okra, pimento cheese, and chitlins.   

“And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed 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.’/And 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.”

For virtually all listeners, what attracted them was that searing, fingerstyle-like groove, which began the number so remarkedly. That Bobbie Gentry, just 23 at the time, could make her Baby Martin acoustic guitar sound intensely primeval was part of the magic. While the public was drawn to the song as a lyrical, homespun ballad, “Ode to Billie Joe” found almost universal acclaim among musicians for its musicianship. On his celebrated SiriusXM show, Bob Dylan recalled when he heard the beginning of “Ode to Billie Joe” for the first time. “It felt primitive, searing -as if the bark had been whittled off a tree,” Dylan quipped. “That girl got my attention straight away.” Otis Redding was quoted as saying to producer Dan Penn, “When I heard that distinct strumming in her intro, I knew it was going to be some kind of trouble.”

To hundreds or civil rights volunteers, “Ode to Billie Joe” summoned up the searing image of FBI agents methodically combing the same Tallahatchie River for the bodies of SNCC volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner three years earlier. In 1967, I had not only read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird but had impulsively leafed through my sister’s old copy of William Bradford Huie’s Wolf Whistle, a harrowing account of the 1955 Emmett Till murder. In the end, fourteen-year-old Till’s tortured body had been tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown off the Black Bayou Bridge and into the Tallahatchie below two supremacists who had objected to him “talking fresh” to a white woman. Of course, no one knew those waters better than Bobbie Gentry.

As the world soon discovered, she had spent the first thirteen years of her life a short walk from the Tallahatchie River Greenwood, Mississippi before moving with her divorced mother to Arcadia, California for her teenage years. Bobbie supported herself with a variety of clerical jobs after high school and also worked for a spell as a fashion model in LA. Eventually, Gentry attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and began to appear in a variety of local nightclubs in the area. In the winter of ’67, Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo Bobbie had recorded and signed her to a one record contract based on the strength of a single she had written entitled, “Mississippi Delta.” Because her original number needed a B-side, Gentry dutifully composed “Ode to Billie Joe.” As Gentry said later on, “The ballad just came in the form of a dinner conversation back at home. It was true, but there were elements of truth throughout it. I felt it captured a place and time pretty well.”

The executives at Capitol immediately recognized that the B-Side should be the featured number and reversed the sides. The entire affair was recorded by Bobbie Gentry on July 10, 1967, at the famed Capitol Records Studio C near Hollywood and Vine. It only took five takes and forty minutes of time for Gentry to lay down her masterwork.

Veteran record producer Jimmie Haskell was given the responsibility of “layering” the song, which had originally been Gentry’s solo guitar and vocals. As Haskell later explained to music historian, Gary Theroux, “Bobbie’s lyrics sounded ‘cinematic’ – very visual –  so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie.” His stringed arrangement turned out to be a revelation adding, even more intrigue to a tune dripping with subtlety. Ultimately, Haskell used four violins, one viola, and two cellos to compliment Gentry’s picking, which remained the lead instrument throughout the ballad. Because single records had to fit on one side of a 45 in those days, most labels insisted that hits be less than five minutes in length. Somewhere buried in the Capitol Records vaults there supposedly is the complete seven-minute version of the song, which contains at least one more verse where a “girl named Sally is heartbroken over the death of her beloved Billie Joe.”

“And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie 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 Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’?”

What transpires, indubitably, is nothing less than a Southern Gothic Tale, replete with every possible human emotion that frames the four-and-a-half minute song. Written in a dialect that has so much fidelity in it that you feel as if Eudora Welty could have written it, the casual dialogue that transpires over a family meal finds the narrator’s life crumble apart amidst conversationalist tones. It is Faulkner-as-musical-verse-form with a Flannery O’Connor sensibility to it.

As Bobbie Gentry said years after she had recorded her magnum opus, “The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about a suicide that had both obvious and unintentional consequences to the family around the dinner table. In my mind, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is a study in unconscious cruelty.” Within a year of Billie Joe MacAllister’s death, the brother would marry and move away; the father would die of the flu; the mother would plunge into paralyzing depression, and the daughter would be haunted by the boy whose demise was both tragic and unlikely.   

And 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.”

Just for kicks, I once asked a number of my ninth grade advanced English students to dissect Gentry’s tale. They came away from the experience obsessed with the unfolding fable that the vast majority of them have just read and heard for the first time. Many of them zeroed in on the family dynamics. One insightful boy wrote: “The narrator just can’t let on that the news is profoundly devastating. She can’t let on that it’s killing her. Interestingly, though, I feel that her mother somehow knows anyway and is quietly dying inside as well. That is because her hard working father knows as well, but because he apparently viewed Billie Joe in mostly negative eyes. Thus, he wants her daughter to just ‘suck it up.’ Life is hard where they live, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Finally, her brother is both reflective and sensitive about Billie Joe’s death; it seems to shake him to the core to such an extent that he ends up marrying his girlfriend and moving away.”

The overarching wonder of the tune, of course, lies in the death of Billie Joe McAllister why he ended up committing suicide in the first place. One of the geniuses of the song is that Bobbie Gentry’s “show – don’t tell” writing never reveals the mystery, which is why “Ode To Billie Joe” is a featured number on the Smithsonian Institute’s Masters of Country Music box set. There, preserved for all-time is Gentry’s dark and exotic husky voice who sang a tune unlike anything else on the radio at the time, with a narrative that was steeped in mystery and intrigue. As Bobbie told journalist Fred Bronson ten years after the release of “Ode to Billie Joe”: “Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, a draft notice to go to Vietnam, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want.”

During the closure of my English class discussion on the ballad, another exceptionally enterprising student exclaimed, “This is very much an example of the ‘butterfly effect’ in action – is the concept that small causes can have large and sometimes unexpected consequences.”

When I asked her to expand on her idea, she later wrote about it in her English journal: “Every little thing does matter in life, and the things we take for granted might be difference-makers for others. Something incredibly inconsequential to you might alter the world of another. That is why this is such a heartbreaking song. It reminds you that have no idea how much turbulence each person experiences in life. I guess all we can do is provide a human bridge over any troubled waters for others. Isn’t that what empathy is about?”

“A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe/And 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.”

Fifty years ago this summer, an unlikely songwriter composed, performed and sang a tune whose pathos and innuendo made it an instant classic. When the first sweltering chord of “Ode to Billie Joe,” is struck, I still take notice and listen intently all these years later. Christopher Hitchens once famously said, “Everyone has one good story in them.” While there were some good stories that were told in the summer of 1967 – Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” and Paul McCartney “She’s Leaving Home,” among them, it is this somewhat obscure, inconclusive ballad whose bell still tolls for us all.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “50 Years Later, “Ode to Billie Joe” Still Haunts

  1. Thanks for this wonderfully literate reading of maybe my favorite song ever. I was six the summer it came out and I’ll never forget the sound of it coming over the AM in our chevy barracuda… I remember an interview with Bobbi where she said it was a song about devastating indifference… I’ve always liked that. I’m sure it nothing new to speculate that this haunting set piece painting set to the blues destroyed her career. Too much, too soon, too obsessively interesting and evocative. The constant demand for clarity, to fill in the blanks, and the constant speculation in absence of her willingness to do so must’ve made that poor girl crazy. I know it would me.

    Like

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