Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe"

Throughout the early sixties, tragic teen ballads – beguiling and haunting mini-operas cured in the melodrama of adolescent angst – dominated the charts. Most were extravagant tales of woe and heartbreak like The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," where the rejected biker/lover dies proudly on his wheels, while others included Frank J. Wilson's "Last Kiss," where Frank's girl dies not-so-proudly because of her boyfriend's faulty wheels. Other earlier sagas of loss were downright perverse. Mark Dinning's 1960 hit "Teen Angel" got the sixties off to a fiendishly grim start. His bizarre story concerns the singer's girlfriend, who gets leveled by a train after she rushes back to her stalled car to rescue her high school ring. (Perhaps today you'd have to substitute a cell phone for the prized jewelry.) And if "Teen Angel" weren't already more than enough, Johnny "Mr. Bass Man" Cymbal came along that same year with "The Water is Red," where the singer's girl gets torn apart by a shark while swimming at the beach. The boyfriend, with chivalry as his shield, bravely wades through the bloodied waters, not to just gather up her torn remains, but to take on (with his pocketknife, no less) this early relative of Jaws. By the jaded seventies, then, it was no surprise that Randy Newman parodied, with expert precision, this strangely popular genre in "Lucinda." Drawing from the slow blues style of Ray Charles, he tells us of a woman who accidentally gets chewed up by a beach-cleaning machine. Lying in the sand in her graduation gown with some boy she just met that night, Lucinda seems to have fallen asleep just as the mechanical contraption started chugging along. Her companion tries vainly to wake her up, but it's to no avail: Lucinda is doomed to lie under the sand. (Given her fate, and the style of the song, Newman may also be parodying murder blues ballads such as "Sleeping in the Ground.") Later in the decade, Warren Zevon went Newman's macabre tale one better with his hilarious satire "Excitable Boy," revisiting the song as if the narrator might be Ted Bundy (and he's backed with affirmative "ooh-wah-ooh's" by Linda Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes in the manner of gregarious high school cheerleaders ). 

If these tragic pop dramas of the past were always bathed in tears (linking them in a significant way to the romantic heartbreak heard in fifties doo-wop), there was one popular tragic song in the summer of 1967 that drew from different sources, avoiding melodrama altogether and casting a spell on listeners for decades. Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" was a quiet Southern Gothic ballad about suicide and other mundane matters of the day which get shared over the dinner table with the biscuits and peas. Where "Leader of the Pack," "Teen Angel" and "Last Kiss" could have been ripped from the headlines of city tabloids, "Ode to Billie Joe" was as cryptic and mysterious as an old Appalachian murder ballad. What made it even more curious was that the summer of 1967 was hardly a quiet one. Some were celebrating a Summer of Love with the Monterey Pop Festival, but in his book, The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus (in discussing "Ode to Billie Joe") reminds readers that a number of calamitous events were taking place that summer besides growing flowers in your hair and heading west. Fifty years ago today, the day after Gentry recorded her single, twenty-six black citizens were killed in protests in Newark, New Jersey. Detroit almost doubled that number two weeks later. Arthur Penn started a revolution in American movies with the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde, a picture about two Depression-era bank robbers that implicated us in the murders we watched on screen.

While angry protests against a war in Southeast Asia competed with all the domestic malaise, a 22-year-old country singer Roberta Lee Streeter, who became professionally known as Bobbie Gentry, went into a Hollywood studio on July 10, 1967 to record what was initially to be the B-side of a single. (The A-side was planned to be the country rock number, "Mississippi Delta," a statement song about her roots as a Southerner.) What she came up with that day ultimately removed The Beatles' more affirmative "All You Need is Love" from the top of the charts and opened up a mystery that swallowed up listeners, just as it would ultimately consume the woman who wrote and performed it. "Ode to Billie Joe" tells the tale of a young woman, who is singing the song, about to sit down with her family for a typical midday meal where conversation rolls off the tongue as casually as the food getting passed around the table. The singer's mother has just heard the news that Billie Joe McAllister has thrown himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi, just above the Delta, where the singer's family lives. She shares the news with everyone as they begin to gather, but they treat the tragedy as an anecdote. The father tells the clan that "Billie never had a lick of sense" while asking his wife to pass the biscuits. Mother chocks it all up to nothing good ever coming out of Choctaw Ridge. The singer's brother recalls a childhood prank of Billie Joe's but expresses more enthusiasm for his mom's apple pie. Only the singer has no appetite, leading her mother to wonder if that has anything to do with the news that the new young preacher, Brother Taylor, saw a girl who looked just like her with Billie Joe up on Choctaw Ridge – and they were throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. But where most songs would, at that point, provide some kind of answer to the mystery, Bobbie Gentry moves right past it without missing a beat, as if the family had to move on from conversing to doing the dishes. By the next verse, it's a year later and Gentry's character sings about her brother getting married and moving to Elvis's birthplace. Tupelo. Her father has since died of a virus and in the aftermath of his demise her mother seems to have lost her will to live. As for the singer herself, she spends her time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge and drops them into the muddy water below the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobby Gentry crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge

In all the turmoil of the summer of 1967, how did an unassuming ballad about a young boy's suicide – failing to provide any reason for it, or for that matter, showing no shock or outrage from the singer's family – create such a stir on the radio? Marcus, discussing the song further in The Old, Weird America, notes that although Bobbie Gentry has "an ache in her voice," she avoids being drawn to the high notes. Perhaps it's because in those high notes the full weight of tragedy can be truly felt, whereas the notes Gentry chooses allow the listener to guess at what is being held back. The melody on guitar is less a melody than a keeping time so that the story has a steady bed to rest on. There's orchestration in the song, too, but as Marcus points out, it sounds like it's coming from far off, making it "less orchestration than signs that a memory is being kept." That memory and what it contains are what haunts the singer, the song, and the listeners who would soon discover it, as I did at summer camp that year on my transistor radio. Those who have come of age in a time when any song can be found at any time through social media will never realize the shock and thrill of discovering a song on the radio. You felt like the young boy in Hebrew class in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, who fades away from his boring lessons so he can better get in tune with Grace Slick offering him a world of questions he finds more profound in "Somebody to Love." That tiny sole earphone offered you a magic portal away from the dull bits in life. Discovering "Ode to Billie Joe" one night as I sat by myself at a small campfire was like being let in on a family secret – but one that, even if I cared to share it with others, I had no answers for because the song didn't provide me with any. "The singer is like the woman who walks the hills in 'Long Black Veil': she knows why Billie Joe went to his death, she knows what they threw into the black water, but not only will she not tell, no one around the table even thinks to ask," Marcus goes on to write. It's that indifference, maybe, that stings the most. In Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn made blood and death matter by viscerally confronting us with it, but it's the absence of confrontation set forth in "Ode to Billie Joe" that's devastating. Nobody cares to know.

Marcus's bringing up "Long Black Veil" is noteworthy, not only because it is also a death ballad, written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin for Lefty Frizzell, but also because secrets are also being kept in it. A man is about to be executed for a murder he didn't commit. But he can't provide an alibi because he was in the arms of his best friend's wife and would rather take their secret to his grave than reveal the truth. In the song's chorus, the wife he slept with walks the hills with a long black veil in the wailing wind to visit his grave. As significant as "Long Black Veil" is to Gentry's, however, it does reveal its secret to the listener; "Ode to Billie Joe" resists the temptation. The Band did a great cover of "Long Black Veil" on their debut album, Music From Big Pink, but first they tackled the mysteries of "Ode to Billie Joe" with Bob Dylan in the Big Pink basement when they recorded "Clothesline Saga," an answer to "Ode." Singing in a monotone cadence, Dylan tells a yawning story about waiting for a line of wet laundry in the yard to dry. As he kills time, a neighbour arrives cheerfully to announce that the Vice-President (who was then Hubert Humphrey) has gone mad. Replying with a shrug that it's too bad but there's clearly nothing that can be done about it, the singer simply carries on waiting for those wet clothes to dry. "Clothesline Saga," which was recorded the same summer as "Ode to Billie Joe," never entered the crap-shoot world of pop radio – in fact, it wasn't even released on record until 1975. But it was an answer song that deliberately parodied and matched the mysterious timbre of "Ode to Billie Joe."

Part of the conundrum of "Ode to Billie Joe"'s being a hit song in the first place is that its power doesn't come from the kind of emotional outbursts that fuel a pop tune like "Leader of the Pack." It carries instead a formal decorum that resists pop conventions. Direct feelings here become masked, and it's that very mask that gives the song its allure. It confounded many who heard it. A friend on Facebook, where I recently noted the anniversary of the song, responded, "The story and presentation was of interest the first few times. After hearing it hundreds of times that summer I was ready to spit bullets into the radio." At a time when "spitting bullets" became the familiar tenor of the country, "Ode to Billie Joe" couldn't help but invoke intense reactions from many Americans. When it became a pop success, the track reached a larger audience than a death ballad by Dock Boggs. Therefore questions remained among many listeners as to just what Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why Billie Joe committed suicide. Speculation became as intensely inquisitive as the continued queries into JFK's murder. Fans wondered if the water below the bridge received an aborted baby, flowers, a draft card, or perhaps even a bottle of LSD. "Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind," Bobbie Gentry said later in exasperation. "The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people's reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and, later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief." A pop audience grown used to having songs, even good ones, spell out answers couldn't possibly be satisfied with that explanation. Neither could a politically motivated folk audience that may have heard the song while waiting for the issue to be stated so they could man a barricade. "The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty," Gentry would finally tell Billboard Magazine. I think that observation best describes the song's appeal even if it frustrates some listeners. While the country was coming apart and lines were being drawn in the sand, people were looking for answers, not the bottomless mystery of a ballad where the writer told us that it didn't matter what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Emmett Till

"Ode to Billie Joe" even became a movie in 1972, directed by Max Baer Jr. (best known as the son of the famous boxer and the Appalachian cartoon Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies), but he decided to provide an obvious answer to the mystery of the suicide – which was probably best left unanswered. "Now that I know why Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time, "I almost wish that I didn't." As for Bobbie Gentry, she took on a number of music styles over the next two decades, running from the questions and obsessions over "Billie Joe." Some of that time was spent recording duets with Glen Campbell, some as a Tiki lounge novelty act. Her career pretty much ended in the early eighties when she retreated into a life of privacy about two hours from the site of the very bridge that made her famous – though the bridge itself had collapsed into the water back in 1972. Other ghosts inhabit those surroundings besides the characters in her song. Many years before the events in Gentry's hit, another body went into the Tallahatchie River and he was no suicide. In 1955, a black youth named Emmett Till was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white girl, at Bryant's Grocery, just around the corner from the bridge. Her husband Roy and JW Milam murdered and mutilated Till and dumped his body into the river. Submerging Emmett Till in the Tallahatchie was a vain attempt to bury the truth of the country's national stain of racism, a viciousness that was hiding under the mask of civility in Southern etiquette, but "Ode to Billie Joe" is about what becomes unspeakable in the language of common folk faced with a mortality that can't be so easily summed up or even recognized.

"Ode to Billie Joe" is still a haunting song to listeners because Gentry, in her exquisite performance, stays true to the people around the dinner table. She invites us into this room of strangers, who might even feel like strangers to each other, and allows them to breathe the air that they can't find the will to clear. Their cadences of somber reflection cause the listener to take stock of the significance of what is often left unsaid, unlike in the topical song which sets out to make a statement. "Ode to Billie Joe" these fifty years later remains a masterpiece of understatement.  

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

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