I 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.