I don’t have a copy of Ode To Billie Joe where I can listen to it regularly. I’m not sure I want to. Something about the music, something about the song’s story, unnerves me. Even now, writing this, I can feel a little knot in my belly. Having said this, I can tell you that, were the song to pop up on the radio, I wouldn’t change the channel. Instead, I would listen and think and wonder. It’s a very spooky song, and if it’s not the best song to come out of the late sixties, then it’s damn close.
Again, I say it’s a spooky song, but it’s not a Horror story in the conventional sense. Nothing supernatural materializes or is even suggest. No one is threatened in anyway by anyone. In fact, the main action has already taken place before the song begins. Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and isn’t it a shame. The incident is mere fodder for discussion at a family’s dinner. However, unbeknown to the rest of the table, one of the family members is deeply affected by the news.
What gives Ode To Billie Joe its power is that its writer, Bobbie Gentry, tells us only the most basic details. We know that there is a connection between the narrator and Billie Joe, and that Billie Joe and a girl who looked like the narrator (was the narrator) were seen dropping something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. But we never learn just what happened. Why did Billie Joe jump?
Those old enough to remember when the song came out could tell us that there was no end of speculation on the matter. Gentry herself had no opinion on the matter. To her, the important part was how the family casually discussed Billie Joe’s death, unaware of what harm their words had. The why, in the end, isn’t what the song is about.
Gentry is, of course, right. But it is this unknown element is what gives the song it’s power. It invites the listener to come up with their own explanations. Some may be prosaic. Some maybe grim. Some maybe even be wrongheaded. They are all right. They are all wrong.
What do I think caused Billie Joe to take his fateful step off the Tallahatchie Bridge? I’m not going to say, because, in truth, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
I will speculate with you though. I believe that every thing in a story matters, whether in setting the mood or in understanding the plot. With that in mind, learning that the narrator and Billie Joe were dropping something off the Tallahatchie Bridge isn’t just something to connect the two. It is a key moment in their relationship. More, it has to have some connection to his death.
If we were to agree that this moment has meaning, then two possibilities emerge:
Billie Joe’s death is the result of this moment. Whatever they dropped off the bridge, Billie Joe couldn’t live with the act.
It is the breech of a promise, the end of hope. What they dropped was a symbol of change for both of them. Let’s say, for the example’s sake, that it sealed a promise that the two of them made to leave their stifling home lives forever. Billie’s death, therefore, symbolizes the end of the narrator’s dream of being free, of moving away like her brother ultimately does.
Me being me, I lean towards the former over the latter. For me, it darkens the already dark tale.
Whether you agree with me or not, whether I am right or not, there is one thing that’s inescapable. While the narrator believes, in the end, that she goes to the bridge to drop flowers into the river, she really isn’t.
For in all ways that matters, she always at the Bridge, at that one moment in time. And she will never.
It’s not a conventional Horror story. It’s Southern Gothic. It’s something that might happen to any of us, at any time. And like a good Horror story, it lingers long after the last note fades away.