Monday, 9 October 2017

Murder Ballad Monday--Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry)

Hello and welcome to Murder Ballad Monday. For the last few weeks I have been looking at versions of Southern Gothic folk songs. I could not resist adding Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry.

Now if you know this song, you might be asking yourself this question. "Spidergrrl, I though this was Murder ballad Monday not Suicide Ballad Monday. What's the deal?"

Well...this song always seemed to me to be about the death of innocence. We had it on vinyl when I was a child. She has giant spiders on her eyes huge false eyelashes which fascinated me as well. 

                           Image result for bobbie gentry album
It was very colloquial and she spoke like someone straight outta Mississippi. as someone who was straight outta Louisiana it was like a conversation at the dinner table when we visited my grandparents. I could just see my Grandpa Cecil Blair dismissing the suicide and my feelings with words like Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please. 

As I got older and began to read Southern Literature, I realised the song was like something out of  a Flannery O'Connor short story. 

Like the Vicki Lawrence version of The Night the Lights went Out in Georgia, it posed many questions for me that I spent hours pondering. I am not alone in this. Upon its release in 1967, the nation was gripped with questions such as:

Why did Billie Joe MacAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

What were she and Billie Joe throwing off the bridge?

Did her family ever realise that she and Billie Joe were sweethearts?

What caused him to be fine the previous day at the sawmill and then kill himself the next? 

Why did the family act like it was not a shocking tragedy? 

As Gentry told Fred Bronson, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.
“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”

That's what I liked about it. Unconscious cruelty. That is straight outta Flannery. 

As I said, I was not the only one who pondered these questions. In 1976, a film version was made starring heart throb Robbie Benson and Glynnis O'Connor. In the film young Billie Joe {SPOILER ALERT} has a homosexual encounter and then kills himself out of guilt and shame. 

I preferred it when you got to ask all the questions, not have them answered. But if you are curious, you can watch the entire film here: 

Back to the actual song. I recall clearly seeing it on a rerun of the Smother's Brothers. She was sitting on a stool in front of a weird tableau of shop mannequins sat around a dining table. It was creepy. 

You can watch the Smother's Brothers recording here. I have included the lyrics below.

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

Tat's all for this week. Stay tuned next week to meet a dashing Highwayman and his brave lover Bess for another murder/suicide. 

1 comment:

  1. A long time favorite of mine. Hard to read the lyrics just plain because her haunting voice and intonation keep seeping through