Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Anybody remember Bobbie Gentry?

Every year about this time I start singing “Ode to Billy Joe.” It stays in my mind, kinda tiptoeing around the edges and every now and then popping out into plain sight.

Why? Well, the first line. “It was the third of June...” That’s all the association I need to get started on it, and once I get started...

I read recently that Gentry recorded that song with just the accompaniment of her acoustic guitar, and sent it as a demo to the recording company. The folks there were so taken with the performance that they just added the orchestra to the original demo and released it.

If you’ve ever lived in the country, or just visited country folk when the family sits around the table at a big mid-day meal, you’ll recognize the authenticity of the picture painted in the words of that poem/song. Between the words, you can almost hear the clink of the plates and bowls as the food is passed around; the clack of the serving utensils spooning out the black-eyed peas; the clicking of knives and forks as the food is consumed. Bet they had sweet tea in a big iced pitcher.

Mama has heard the gossip and is quick to share it. The news of the suicide gets chewed on a while, like the plenteous food, and then set aside. Mama is none too subtle in making a connection between the singer and “that nice young preacher Brother Taylor,” who, “said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday.” Sounds like a match-making going on.

And though most at the table makes reference to a connection between the singer and the suicide victim, nobody can see that she’s stricken. I imagine that Preacher Taylor got a cool reception if he made any overtures to the singer at dinner that next Sunday.

And that’s the beauty of the song. It rings true, in all the little details. It paints a clear picture in relatively few words, showing the listener, not so much telling what the real story and emotions are.

I wish I could do that so well in my writing.

I’ve liked that song from the first time I heard it. I used to sing that to my girls on our long-driving family vacations.

If you’re not familiar with it, give it a listen sometime and see if you don’t agree with me. If you can’t find it or download it, let me know and I’ll figure out a way to get it to you (without violating any copyright laws, of course.)


Anonymous said...

It is a wonderfully evocative song . . . I can remember as a kid puzzling and puzzling over it -- what was it that Billy Joe and the singer were throwing off the bridge -- had to have been they lost a baby, don't you think?

And I know exactly what you mean about trying to write that way. It's so important to not "over tell" -- to let readers figure out for themselves what's going on in the story, just like in real life we catch on kind of slowly sometimes to what's going on in other peoples' lives . . .

Miss Cellania said...

The imagery of the song makes me feel hot and humid. I guess "sultry" is the word, because I've BEEN at so many of those rural meals.

Duke_of_Earle said...


The most common speculation of what was thrown was a "lost" (aborted? premie?) baby, but to me that doesn't fit. In a family as close as this one, wouldn't perceptive Mama have known or suspected her daughter was pregnant and then lost the baby? Secrets and coverups don't usually last too long in a country/small town setting, IMO.

I've also read that they'd conspired to murder someone (at the sawmill?) and were disposing of the body. In the movie version it was simply a rag doll that was tossed, and then Billy Joe jumps because he thinks he might be gay. Weird today, but that WAS the 60s. But none of that detracts from the unique power of the lyrics and "delivery" that makes it so "evocative," as you put it. Very apt term.


Monica said...

Oh wow, deja vu. My daughter's plane left DFW on June 3 so that song has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks because of the date.

I remember the movie, too. :)

Take care.

Candace said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane - that was a great song!

And now I have an earworm to try to get outta my head for the rest of the day. Dang.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite songs.

There are many current stories of girls who have been pregnant, given birth, and disposed of the baby and no one had any idea they were pregnant. It totally could have happened. I think because it was a small town environment she would have gone to even greater pains to hide the secret. and if she withdrew gradually from her family, her mother probably would be too busy gossiping to really notice. I don't think they just "disposed of" the baby, though, I think they wanted it and it died.

Hale McKay said...

Well, I'll be hog-tied - all this time I thought they was a throwin' away a rejection letter from a story that Billy Joe McCallister wrote.