The subject for Day 23 of my 30-day Song Challenge is “A song that tells a story“. I feel confident in stating that just about everyone loves songs that tell a story, as they’re often very compelling, reeling us in as their lyrics unfold, and keeping our attention all the way to the end. Some of the great “story” songs that come to mind are “El Paso” by Marty Robbins (which I wrote about in 2019, and is my 8th most-viewed post ever), “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley, “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash, “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, “Taxi” by Harry Chapin, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, and “Stan” by Eminem. But the one I’ve chosen is one of the very best – “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. I remember loving it as a 13-year old back in 1967.
Bobbie Gentry wrote “Ode to Billie Joe” with the intention of having Lou Rawls record it. But after Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon received her demo for her song “Mississippi Delta”, he liked it and asked her for a B-side that could be released on a single. She then recorded a demo of the song, with just her vocals accompanied by an acoustic guitar, in February 1967. Gordon liked her vocals on the demo, but decided to add an instrumental arrangement to the recording. He enlisted Jimmie Haskell (a composer and arranger for both motion pictures and an array of popular artists, including Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and the Everly Brothers) to prepare a string arrangement with four violins and two cellos. Haskell felt the song sounded like it could be from a film and decided to write the arrangement with a more cinematic feel, as if it were a score. Gordon then overdubbed Gentry’s recording with the haunting string arrangement, and decided that “Ode to Billie Joe” would be the A-side of the single, with “Mississippi Delta” as the B-side.
The song was written in the form of a first-person narrative, told by the young daughter of a rural Mississippi Delta family, and sung by Gentry. It features perfect rhymes from the first to the sixth line of every verse and, unlike most songs, contains no chorus. The lyrics tell the story of the family’s reaction to the news of the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter (and narrator) is connected. The song quickly became popular upon its release in July 1967, because it created curiosity in listeners, leaving them wondering what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and what caused Billie Joe to commit suicide. In numerous interviews, Gentry clarified that she intended the song to portray the family’s indifference to the suicide in what she deemed “a study in unconscious cruelty”, while she remarked the object thrown was not relevant to the message.
In an August 1967 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gentry compared the song to a play, and said she wanted to show “people’s lack of ability to empathize with others’ tragedy“. She pointed at the mother, noticing but not understanding her daughter’s lack of appetite, while later in the song, the daughter seems unable to fully grasp the similarity of her mother’s behavior after the father dies. Gentry explained that both characters had “isolated themselves in their own personal tragedies“, and remained unconcerned for the others. Regarding the object thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, she commented that people had found more meanings than she had intended, such as “a baby, a wedding ring, or flowers“, among other things. While she indicated that what happened at the bridge was the motivation behind Billie Joe’s suicide, she’d intended to leave that open to the listener’s interpretation, adding that her sole motivation was to show “people’s apathy“. (Wikipedia)
“Ode to Billie Joe” was a big hit, spending four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and also reaching #1 in Canada. Surprisingly, it peaked at only #17 on the Country chart. The song was also nominated for eight Grammy Awards, with Gentry and arranger Jimmie Haskell winning three between them, and later adapted for the 1976 film Ode to Billy Joe.
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-a apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya 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 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 Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge