Note: Due to some malignant configuration of the stars, I have been suffering computer trouble for the last month which has meant that this little piece, celebrating (if that’s the right word) the 50th anniversary of Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge is three weeks late. Hopefully, getting this post up will finally mean that my luck with my laptop is about to change.
There is something in the human heart that loves mystery. Oddities and coincidences, unsolved murders and disappearances, sightings of sea monsters, UFOs and Elvis, are always guaranteed things. This has been true from the beginning: the first sighting of a UFO took place in ancient Egypt and the legend of Atlantis was started by the Greek philosopher, Plato. So in the summer of 1967, it’s not surprising that here in the United States, the hot topic of conversation was not the acceleration of the Vietnam War or the threat of the long, hot summer, but what Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Fifty years later, people are still wondering and also puzzling over the fact why he then committed suicide. The amazing thing about all this speculation is that Billie Joe–at least the one remembered–never existed except in a song entitled, “Ode to Billie Joe” which was written and performed by a relatively unknown singer named Bobbie Gentry.
When Gentry recorded “Ode” on July 10, 1967, her solo debut, the twenty-three year old Mississippi native (born Roberta Lee Streeter) had been playing in California clubs and Vegas shows and had recorded two duets with Jody Reynolds. Stars like Bob Hope and Hoagy Carmichael had seen her and encouraged her but a break had not yet come. Her luck changed with “Ode to Billie Joe” which captured something dark and exquisite from the start:
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
Then she said I got some news this mornin’, from Choctow Ridge,
Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
From the substance of the first five lines and from the general tempo, a suicide at the end of the first stanza is the last thing that someone would expect. The beginning of the song almost hypnotically puts you into a false sense of security. The choice of words–“choppin'” and “y’all”–helps, by setting you firmly in the deep South, or at least, what people think of as the deep South. By grounding the song in that particular place, the heat and languidity of the South–the sleepiness of the Delata–is made present. Only gentry’s guitar–ominous in its relentless and, in itself, innocuous tune–and her own husky, slightly graveled voice lets it be known that something is not quite right.
At the dinner table, the nameless narrator’s family starts discussing Billie Joe’s death. The narrator’s brother, in particular, finds it hard to believe:
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 Choctow Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
With the rising of the story, the other instrument pieces–two violins and four cellos–make themselves known. The cellos’s three note descent at the end of the fourth line adds a good amount of foreboding, an anticipation of sorts before the reveal of the last two lines, something that is repeated in every other stanza as well. The narrator’s mother has noticed something else:
And 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 Choctow Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
And there is one of the greatest mysteries in song lyrics–what did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge? The song never explained. The unanswered question didn’t stop “Ode to Billie Joe” from becoming an unexpected by dramatic hit. In August of 1967 “Ode” took the #1 spot on the music billboard, ousting the Beatles’s “All You Need is Love” and stayed there for three weeks (being the longest #1 of 1967, clocking in at four minutes thirty-four seconds). Today, “Ode to Billie Joe” still is ranked #418 on Rolling Stone’s list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time. One of the things that makes “Ode” timeless is that it is lightening in a bottle. The lyrics are Southern and set up the scene but are not so regional that the listener is left scratching his head over their meaning. The minimalism of the music helps in this regard too–Gentry’s guitar and the six strings are all that there is. When arranger, Jimmie Haskell, asked producer, Kelly Gordon, what instruments to put into the song, Gordon told him to only put in the minimum since, “No one will ever hear it anyway,” the thinking that had “Ode” put on the B-side of the original record, where the lesser song was put. Compare “Ode” to “Mississippi Delta” the A-side song; guitar, some bass and drums and even a harmonic make the song very busy while words such as “apple pan dowdy,” “scuppernons,” and “friderliss-farce-nickery-john-querry-quan” are so regional as to leave the listener in the dark. “Ode’s” lightening in a bottle status is also shown by the failure of any other singer to come close to re-creating what Gentry made in the summer of ’67. Not that they haven’t tried–Sheryl Crowe, Sinead, Nancy Wilson, Joe Tex, Tammy Wynette–have all recorded their own versions of “Ode” and none of come close to the original; without Gentry and her Southern, deep gravel voive and her earnest, even tempo singing, the song lost a lot of its power. Funnily enough, though, even Gentry couldn’t catch the lightening twice; when she song the song live with Ray Charles, the the slow, even tempo and the minimalist instruments were replaced with a jazz beat for Charles’s piano. It was a version that definitely felt like a race The ode demanded that Bobbie Gentry sing it, but it also demanded that Gentry sing it like she had in 1967. The song was the perfect combination of voice, tempo, and music.
But what makes “Ode to Billie Joe” so timeless? It goes deeper than the combination. Like Bing’s “White Christmas,” “Ode” taps into a human emotion, in this case, curiosity and love of the unknown Throughout its five stanzas, the song actually incorporates several different mysteries. The first, of course, is what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. A lot of theories have been proposed–a baby, an engagement ring, a doll, a draft card. No solid answer has come, though. The only source for such a solid answer would be Bobbie Gentry herself but, it seems, she is just as mystified as the rest of us. At one point, she said that it wasn’t important what was thrown off the bridge; on a flight to Europe, she said that a baby was the only possible answer; still later, she confessed that she wasn’t sure, finding herself in the same position as Raymond Chandler when he was asked who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. The reason why Billie Joe jumped seems tied to what was thrown into the river before but, again, without knowing the first, only speculation can give answer to the second. Speculation, in fact, has abounded, with with whole websites springing up to answer the mystery. Everyone from Papa to Brother Taylor have been named as the culprits, as well as racism (on the premise that either Billie Joe or the narrator was black) and “homophobia” (based on the idea that either Billie Joe was a girl [even though Billie Joe is referred to as “he” several times in the song] or that he was a he but was actually attracted to men (which was the direction taken by Max Baer, Jr.’s very predictable 1976 move, Ode to Billie Joe). Everyone has their own theory but, when the composer herself says that there really no answer, what is left but “conspiracy mode” where everything is up for grabs? The very identity of the narrator, nameless and faceless throughout the entire ode, weaves itself into both of these mysteries, enhancing both and making itself its own mystery as well. It didn’t have to be that way. Contrary to what some say, Gentry did originally have a different opening stanza:
People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore
There’s a lot o’ speculatin’, she’s not actin’ like she did before
Some say she knows more than she’s willin’ to tell
But she stays quiet and a few think that it’s just as well
No one really knows what went on up on Chowctow Ridge
The day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
It’s certainly not bad but so much of the mystery is inadvertently revealed that a lot of the power is seeped away.
The South’s natural mysticism adds icing to the cake. The South is more romantic, Gothic and mysterious than, say, Mid-West Kansas. The South has voodoo queens, Scottian chivalry, moons over bayous, and the distinct feeling that it was, in a different time, an almost alien place. The tempo and music, again, infuse “Ode” with that natural, Southern mystique and place it inside that tradition of the “mysterious South.”
And then, of course, there’s the whole mystery of Bobbie Gentry herself. After the success of “Ode to Billie Joe” Gentry went on to record a number of records, she sang eighteen duets with Glen Campbell, appeared on the Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash’s show and even had her own show on television. And then, in 1979, she disappeared–no more songs, no television appearances, no interviews. Although she has apparently been sighted frequently around Los Angeles, no beside a handful of select people, knows where she lives. The situation is perfect, almost as if Judge Crater had written 95% of a brilliant mystery novel before his disappearance.
All of these mysteries tie into, perhaps, the greatest allure of the song; “Ode to Billie Joe” is a living fossil, causing the same reaction in many people they they would receive in seeing a T-Rex lumber across the road. All the elements that make it timeless are practically non-existent in music today. The tempo and minimalist music have given away to frenzied beats, electronic noise, chords and creaming. In place of a girl, sitting on a stool and singing, our singers now have to be acrobats. In place of an eerie and engaging story, we have emotions dealing with break-ups, despair, cynicism, and drugs. If Bing and Doris Day have no place in our society today because of their optimism, innocence and deep felt emotions (as compared to angst) Gentry has no place with her mystery and darkness:
A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie 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 want to do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctow Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge
We don’t write songs like that anymore. maybe because, in large part, we don’t believe in mystery anymore, don’t believe that unforeseen and tragic events can strike us from out of a blue sky. maybe because all of our music now is uniform so a song that comes from Mississippi, and not just written by someone originally from Mississippi, can’t find a place by the fire anymore. All the more reason why we should remember when Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.