Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everyday poetry: "Ode to Billie Joe"

When you mention poetry to most people, you will invoke for them images of dead bards and the English majors who love them, depressed teenagers, and teenagers in teenaged love. There may be a surreptitiously rolled eye or two as well. Poetry is not for the masses, or so they think.

Of course that isn't true. Poetry is integrated into our everyday lives through popular music. In many if not most cases, song lyrics are poems accompanied by music. Lyrics and arrangements that resonate with the public become hits; those that don't languish as filler tracks.

I was reminded of the poetic nature of popular music when I heard Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" on BBC Manchester this week. The combination of the mysterious lyrics, lush arrangement, and rough vocals vaulted the song to a No. 1 spot in 1967. Later, as a nostalgia craze for the 1960s and '70s started to take root, a movie version (with one possible solution revealed) was released.

Gentry has said that she doesn't know what Billy Jo (the spelling in the lyrics) and the girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. This seems likely to me; 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.

Gentry's allusions leave a number of possibilities open, none of them right or wrong. She has said that the lyrics focus on the cold, nonchalant way the girl's family discusses Billy Joe's suicide. 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," as though to make the point that life goes on in its most mundane ways without room or time for emotions.

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?

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. and her mother notices her lack of appetite. If she is the girl who was with Billy Joe, she keeps it to herself and doesn't want anyone to know. Her family, consciously or unconsciously, add to her feelings of grief and possibly guilt.

It's not my point to resolve the questions, especially since the writer has offered no answers. Much of the song's interest lies in interpreting the clues. Does Mama emphasize "young" when talking about the new preacher to make a point to the girl about his availability as an alternative to Billy Joe? What about Choctaw Ridge is associated with "no good"? Is it a poor area, a teen hangout, or a spot with an evil past? Is the family engaging in idle gossip, or are they colluding to make a point to the girl? There are no set answers, nor should there be.

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 centers. The rhythm of the names, combined with their repetition, sears them into our memories. Both places are haunted by the girl who picks flowers on the ridge to throw off the bridge and by the emotions associated with an unexplained tragedy.

"Seems like nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."


  1. I haven't heard that song in years - loved it as a kid. I need to go find it...

  2. BTW, I considered that one of the two (the family or Billy Joe) might be black, but I didn't think they would be chatting after church in 1967 Mississippi if that were the case, or going to the picture show together. I don't think that was "done" in that place at that time, although there are theories to that effect.

    The Tallahatchie Bridge collapsed in the early 1970s. It was only 20 feet high, and the water was deep, so you could jump with no problem. People did after the song came out, driving the local police nuts.

    Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till's tortured body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. According to Wikipedia, "Till's mother had an open casket funeral to let everyone see how her son had been brutally killed. He had been shot and beaten; he was then thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire to work as a weight. His body remained in the river for three days until it was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen." The story was covered by 60 Minutes a few years ago.

    All the photos I've found of bridges over the Tallahatchie show a very muddy river.

    Capitol released Gentry's demo version with some orchestration added. Her singing and guitar work are unadulterated, which is fabulous. I loathe pop music because it is so, so overproduced. (Well, there are other reasons, but you get the idea.)