What Matters in “Ode to Billie Joe”

Ode to Billie JoeI find myself haunted by “Ode to Billie Joe.” The weird thing about Bobbie Gentry is that she was a very good songwriter. Well, to be honest, her melodies often fell into the same patterns, but they always worked and could be quite original at times. And her lyrics were always quite strong. But nothing compares to “Ode to Billie Joe.” How do you top that? I don’t think people really wanted to hear anything but that song from her and she was right to retire from the business so soon. The irony is she might have had a better career if she hadn’t come out of the gate as she did.

Put simply, “Ode to Billie Joe” is a great work of art. It is a short story in song in the sense that it provides no more information than it has to. It has an introduction and a conclusion, but the meat of the song are the three middle verses that describe the reactions of papa, brother, and mama to the death of Billie Joe. The event affects papa as much as the news that the French were at war in Angola. Brother was acquainted with Billie Joe and is sad to hear the news, but it isn’t going to affect his life in any great way. The mama verse is the crux of the matter because it’s the one that makes clear that the death of Billie Joe is the most important event in the narrator’s entire life.

There are two ways to interpret mama’s verse. Either mama knows or she doesn’t. The way the song is written, the implication is that she doesn’t. But I find it hard to read it that way. She mentions the young preacher, who mama clearly hopes her daughter will marry. And clearly, mama and the preacher spoke about the them “dropping something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” I imagine a conversation about how the daughter seems to be around Billie Joe a lot and maybe supper isn’t such a great idea. Regardless whether mama knows or not, she’s not saying anything.

The last verse is a year later and both of the men are gone. Brother has married and moved on with his life. Papa has died. So the two women are left distraught over the deaths of the men that they loved. Of course, mama doesn’t want to do anything. She’s probably spent over half her life with papa. There’s no romance in that. It’s just the story of every life. There is no future that she can see—no autumn romance—just marking time until she too dies. The narrator’s story is the more romantic, but she isn’t over her loss any more than her mother is. (A more positive take is to note that papa died in the spring, which means he’s only been dead for a couple of months. So you could see the final verse as showing mama in the early state of shock and grief that the narrator was in at the dinner table that sleepy, dusty Delta day. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because it is the narrator’s story.)

Where the song ends could make a great beginning for a novel about a mother and a daughter and how they deal with their grief. I’m sentimental, so I imagine them growing closer, learning deep truths, and moving on with life. But what is great about the song is that it doesn’t resolve anything. For all we know, even after this year, mama still doesn’t know about the importance of Billie Joe to her daughter and has no idea that she spends a lot of time up on Choctaw Ridge paying tribute to his memory.

I understand why people wanted to make the song concrete. The song provides the emotional core and some tantalizing details. But the reason the song works so well and the film does not is because it doesn’t matter why Billie Joe killed himself; it doesn’t matter what they dropped off the bridge; it doesn’t matter what their relationship was. It matters that the narrator suffers in silence; it matters that her family is unintentionally cruel; it matters that someone—the only one who doesn’t speak—cared about Billie Joe and that he’s dead. To know more is to poison the song’s emotional purity.

Time as a Construct of Consciousness

Arthur SchopenhauerI’ve kind of given up on calling myself an atheist. This is mostly just because atheists seem to hate it so much. Normally, I’d do it just for the fun of angering them. But I really do qualify. I don’t believe in “God” as some being or thing or process that has any interest in me at all. In fact, I don’t believe in any ideas about cosmic consciousness that might have any interest in anything at all. And I certainly don’t believe that there is anything like life after death. Still, I am a mystic.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that time doesn’t exist. It seems to me that time is nothing more than a construct of consciousness—a way that we perceive reality, which itself is eternal. What we see as past, present, and future are just a thing. It’s like existence is a video and we are only able to see one image at a time. We mistake the image we are currently looking at for “now.” But it isn’t “now.” Every image on the tape is “now.” It exists now and forever. The problem is not the video tape, which is just a bunch of information. The problem is the very limited ways that we have figured out how to experience that information.

The analogy goes further. Video isn’t continuous. In general, it consists of 30 (29.997) frames—individual images—per second. Because of the ways that our brains work, it seems continuous. This is called the “phi phenomenon.” But what we’re interested in is how we don’t notice the nothing between the images. This is called “persistence of vision.” If you look at something and it disappears, your brain will think it is still there for a fraction of a second. So even though the video tape is just a series of static images, it is a representation of something that is more or less continuous. For example: tape me as I walk across the room. Then watch the tape. It looks the same. But it is not. It’s just a trick! In film it is even clearer, because you can see the mechanism: light projects an image, light turns off, next image is moved in place, light is turned on and projects the new image. You just didn’t notice the dark moment when the light turned off.

Thus, I don’t think what we see as reality is continuous. I think we see little snapshots of reality. But unlike persistence of vision, which allows us to disregard the absence of an image for about a 25th of a second, our persistence of reality would be very very small. I figure something like the Planck time:

Planck Time    =    5.4×10-44 s

This would explain to me the great “Why?!” of quantum mechanics: why can we only look so far into reality before it stops being concrete? Why is it we must use statistical tools the way other scientists do when they can’t deal with actual individuals. And I say it is because our perception of reality has those dark spots where the light turns off. But because of our “persistence of reality” we think it is continuous.

You might wonder: does this matter other than to theoretical physicists and other crazy people? On a day to day basis, it doesn’t. For example, I’m about to go and make some baked potatoes, because they are delicious. I’m going to finish writing this article because I enjoy it. I will go on living my life just the same. But it bugs me. Because I am part of reality. And I wonder what happens to me between one bit of reality and the next. And it makes me think that my consciousness is just a trick. And that brings me back to the same place I always end up back at: Schopenhauer.

This is why I no longer fear dying. My existence strikes me as a great big cosmic joke. I like life and baked potatoes and all that. But it’s all so curious. I think Hamlet was wrong when he said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I think there are actually fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. If our dreams exist at all.


The ultimate question is whether I believe any of this. A little. What I actually think is a lot more complex and I’m still working on it, as you can probably tell. It’s hard to find the language to talk about this stuff.

Murrieta and Immigrant Hatred

Murrieta ImmigrantsI have always thought of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as a pro-Israel lobbying group. And that’s certainly not an unreasonable way to think of them. They are fiercely supportive of Israel, as I mentioned briefly a couple of days ago. But they are much more than that. I was pleased to come upon an article on their site this week, Longtime Anti-Immigrant Activists Behind Murrieta Protests. It is very interesting reading.

What appears to be happening is that a small group (in the thousands) of mostly children from a few Central American countries have come to the United States seeking asylum. These are not undocumented people and they have (most anyway) not broken any laws. They turned themselves over to the United States government and asked for asylum just as people do all the time. During the Cold War, Americans were proud that Soviet citizens did this. We even had a super-keen word for it: “defecting”! Well, that’s what these kids are doing.

So why the protests? Why is the conservative press presenting this as a huge increase in illegal immigration? What is actually happening should make Americans swell with pride. These mostly young people are in trouble not at all of their own causing and they have come to us for help. I say, “Welcome!” I say, “Thank you for the honor of thinking us so good.” We are supposed to say:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.[1]

The reason for the protests comes down to what I wrote about a year ago, Conservatives Hate All Immigrants. It was after the Boston bombing and how it was causing people to complain about immigrants. I thought it was strange because the Tsarnaev brothers were here legally. And it was only then that I realized that all the talk of “illegal immigration” was really just a cover for the anti-immigration sentiment that has been here in the United States from its very beginning.

Still, I think most people are like me. In that article, I wrote, “I am proud that much of the world would like to come here.” And what I learned from the ADL article is that these protests didn’t just erupt spontaneously. They were a creation by a number of hateful people and groups. There’s conspiracy theorist Patrice Lynes, who thinks that the United Nations is going to destroy US sovereignty. This has long been a belief of the John Birch Society. The anti-immigration group We the People Rising seems to have done much of the organizing and provided most of the signs. The group is related to Lupe Morfin who was quoted by The Los Angeles Times charmingly saying, “They’ve completely taken over our areas and our neighborhoods, which have become Third World countries.” And it seems that the anti-immigration group San Diegans for Secure Borders Coalition has been involved in promoting the protests as well.

Now there is nothing wrong with people organizing events. But I’m afraid that it gives a bunch of marginal groups a lot of undeserved attention. Most Americans have confidence that the government can manage to apply its immigration and asylum laws correctly. But as the ADL concludes, “In Murrieta and Vassar, anti-immigrant activists closely tied to the largest anti-immigrant groups in the country such as FAIR[2] and NumbersUSA are helping to spread their message of bigotry and xenophobia in an attempt to create a climate of fear around this humanitarian crisis.”

Meanwhile, pro-immigration groups are fighting back. And it’s funny. When I look at pictures of the pro-immigrant side, I see America in all its variety. When I look at pictures of the anti-immigrant side, I just see a bunch of angry white people. Of course, this isn’t about skin color or culture. These same fights went on when the Irish came, when the Italians came, when the Chinese came—pretty much when anyone came. There will always be people who use fear and hatred to maintain the status quo. But American history is very clear on this: the immigrants always win.

[1] These are, of course, the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. It is the ending of the sonnet “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus. Here is the sonnet in its entirety:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

[2] In this sentence, “FAIR” stands for the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform—a group that explicitly wants to reduce legal immigration as well as illegal immigration. It is not the really great group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which I talk about all the time.

Game Master Stewart Culin

Stewart CulinOn this day in 1858, the great American ethnographer Stewart Culin was born. Ethnography is the study of cultures from the outside. I have long had a great interest in ethnomusicology, especially as it relates to the music in America. Mack McCormick’s work in the south, for example, found amazing differences just a couple of miles away; for example, in one town everyone played the banjo, but in another close by town, no one did. Culin spent most of his life looking at the games played by various groups, although later in his life he became interested in dress.

He was completely self-taught. It reminds me of a line from the movie Quiz Show where a student asks Mark Van Doren what he is supported to learn from Don Quixote, and the professor responds, “It means: if you want to be a knight, act like a knight.” People waste whole lives waiting for permission to do things. That’s what higher eduction is all about—especially the PhD. More than showing that you’re learned, it is about showing that you are one of the guys.

I was thinking about that last night as I was researching, Inequality Has Been Rising Steadily for 50 Years. The work was relatively simple and I made simplifying assumptions. But I know exactly how to do it as well as any PhD economist. It’s just that it would have taken a lot more time, and I’m not that interested. I got the results I wanted. Now it just so happens that I have a PhD and in a field that is kind of related to economics—physicists and economists are generally bound by their love of differential equations. But the truth is that anyone with a basic understanding of mathematics and an interest could do the same work.

And that was the case with Stewart Culin: he was smart and he was interested. And he managed do an amazing amount of work. He became involved in several ethnographic groups in his twenties. That’s one of the great things about that period of time. There was no television or radio, so people started groups with others of similar interests. It was the great age of the amateur. Now it is the great age of the conspiracy theorist. In this way, we have certainly slipped. But Culin rather quickly became a professional: first as the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology and then as the curator of Ethnology at the Institute of Arts and Sciences of the Brooklyn Museum.

His major work was Games of the North American Indians, a 900 page tome that divided the games into those of chance and those of skill. He did much the same with various other cultures, including those in Africa and especially Asia. Although he continued to study ethnic games all his life, he branched out into decorative art, furniture, and fashion. He seems to have worked pretty much to the end, when he died at the age of 70 in 1929.

Happy birthday Stewart Culin!