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.)