Monday, October 12, 2009

Ode to Billy Joe

"Ode to Billie Joe" is a 1967 song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in late July, was a number-one hit in the USA, and became a big international seller. The song is ranked #412 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, including three wins for Gentry and one win for arranger Jimmie Haskell.

This song is a first person narrative that reveals a quasi-Southern Gothic tale in its verses by including the dialog of the narrator's immediate family at dinnertime on the day that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Throughout the song, the shocking fact of the suicide and other tragedies are contrasted with the banality of everyday routine and polite conversation in a way that makes the events seem even more shocking to the listener than if the participants had immediately reacted in horror to the news.

The song begins with the narrator and her brother returning, after morning chores, to the family house for dinner. After cautioning them about tracking in dirt, "Mama" says that she "got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge" that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," apparently to his death.

At the dinner table, the narrator's father is unsurprised at the news and says, "Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o' sense," and mentions that there are "five more acres in the lower forty I got to plow." Although her brother seems to be taken aback ("I saw him at the sawmill yesterday.... And now you tell me Billie Joe has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"), he's not shocked enough to keep him from having a second piece of pie. Late in the song, Mama questions the narrator's complete loss of appetite ("Child, what's happened to your appetite? I been cookin' all mornin' and you haven't touched a single bite,") yet earlier in the song recalled a visit earlier that morning by Brother Taylor who is, apparently, the local preacher. He mentioned that he had seen Billie Joe and a girl who looked (to him) very much like the narrator herself and they were "throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

In the song's final verse, a year has passed, during which the narrator's brother has married and moved away. Also, her father died from a viral infection, which has left her mother despondent. The narrator herself now visits Choctaw Ridge often, picking flowers there to drop from the Tallahatchie Bridge onto the murky waters flowing beneath it.

The bridge, mentioned most famously in this song, collapsed in June 1972.

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