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Thoughts on Ode to Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry

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When I write about poetry in this blog, it’s usually about standard poems that end up in books, not about pop songs. That’s not really because of any snobbery on my part. I think there are some very well-written songs out there. I just hadn’t thought of it before today.

So here are a few paragraphs about, a song that came out in 1967. I've linked to a live performance (at least she's singing it live - I think the music is canned) from The Smothers Brothers Show.

I’ve always like this song. It’s a snapshot of life in the American South with a mystery thrown in. The tune is hypnotic and the place names sound exotic to my northern ear.

Bobby Gentry was pretty good at listening to the way people talk and reproducing conversation in rhyme that sounds realistic. I highlighted in red the lines I think exemplify this.

The whole piece hangs together in feeling, the music creating a langorous mood that the words mirror. The first few lines and notes land us in a summer afternoon with the kids just knocking off from what sounds likes strenuous work and not running (too hot, no doubt) but walking back to a heavy Southern meal that includes blackeyed peas and biscuits and apple pie for dessert.

There isn’t anything sappy or hokey in this poem/song/short story. Bobby Gentry has more in common here with Flannery O’Connor than with Jeannie C. Riley.

Because Billie Joe’s suicide wasn’t explained, nor what was thrown off the bridge, people wanted to know what “really” happened. From Wikipedia, here’s what Bobby had to say about this song:

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 peoples' 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.

Pretty bleak assessment. But I hadn’t thought about that and it adds another dimension to this ode.

Ode to Billie Joe

Bobby Gentry

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 Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas

"Well, Billie 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 Billie Joe, anyhow

Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge

And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

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"

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 Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' 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 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

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I think I've been the opposite to you and have tended to favour song lyrics over poetry, perhaps because music can be used to enhance the rhythym and other characteristics of the words. Moreover, I think traditions might be captured better in songs than in poetry.

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