Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times or more before you really hear it. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe‘s been around since 1968, a no. 12 in Britain not coming close to the song’s four weeks at no. 1 status in America, and I’ve heard it many times: that lilting, almost awkward acoustic guitar, Gentry’s husking crooning bringing out the Southern accent, the strings austere and distant, sparing.
It’s an oddity of a song, an improbable hit, hard to imagine coming out of nowhere with it’s near stop-start rhythm, its lack of a chorus, its downplayed melody, it’s unlyrical lyrics, spinning out the chatter of a meal, somewhere out in deep rural America, the Mississippi Delta, a million miles away from anything you’d ever consider remotely sophisticated.
But if you listen, and if you hear, Ode to Billy Joe is a very chilling song, a very scary song, a ghost song with an immense void at its heart, something that you sense might be understandable but which, by the end, you realise you just don’t understand at all.
Gentry sings from inside herself, a young girl, still in her teens, coming in for midday with her Mamma and Poppa and Brother, fresh from a morning chopping cotton, to news, delivered casually, that Billy Joe McAlllister, a young man from Choctaw Ridge, has killed himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
The conversation meanders. Poppa comments that Billy Joe had a lick of sense, but his main concern is the ploughing he still needs to do in the Lower Forty. Mamma thinks its a shame. Brother recollects childish pranks involving he and another friend and Billy Joe putting a frog down his sister’s dress at some old Show.
It’s the first suggestion of a link between the singer and Billy Joe, but she says nothing of her own, as little snippets pass harmlessly between the family, drawing together a connection that we sense lies at the very heart of things, about why Billy Joe has killed himself.
But it’s a void, a ghost story. All we have are guesses. The girl knows something, but she’s not going to bring anything to this dinner conversation, not now, not ever. Ever. And that’s what is so disturbing. Something happened, and we sense ourselves at the very edge of a tragedy all the bigger for remaining undefined.
Perhaps it’s something mundane, something down-home and simple and trite, but it’s still cost a life and we will never know why or how. Just what was it that was thrown off the bridge the other day? A film was made, an entire film, to give an explanation to this song, and the film-makers chose to make the thing into a doll, the girl’s doll, thrown away in a psychological attempt to make her grow out of childhood. But that was the film-makers’ interpretation, because we just don’t know. There are no answers, only an impenetrable shadow, but what led up to Billy Joe’s death becomes a curse that causes the collapse of this family in which Miss Gentry shelters her secret.
Within a year, Brother’s married and moved out a ways, Poppa’s died of a fever and Momma’s been broken by it. The girl is still silent, but she’s drawn back, time and again, to Choctaw Ridge, picking flowers and dropping them into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
These are real places, names. They don’t merely exist, they are the geography of Bobbie Gentry’s childhood. Knowing this raises the fears another notch. It’s just a song, a slow, quiet, gentle, song, with something concealed in the heart of it that we will never know, for certain. And what if it’s real? What if it’s not only a song?