Morning Music: Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry

Ode to Billie JoeI’m still not feeling 100%. Not to mention, my day job just greatly increased my workflow. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that. I’m feeling very anxious. And as a result, I can’t come up with a theme for the morning music posts this week. So I’m just going to do some songs I like. Or hate. Or whatever comes into my mind. Today, I’m doing Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”

I liked this song well enough when I was a kid. I remember seeing the film based upon it, made by Max Baer Jr, or as you probably know him Jethro Bodine. But the song didn’t really hit me in all its brilliance until I was well into my thirties. There was a magazine, perhaps Harper’s, that had a short story on the last page of every issue. They described it as a novel in a single page — a story that was so powerful that it would have as great an effect on you as a novel. Well, that’s the way I feel about “Ode to Billie Joe.” It’s a novel in five verses.

The beauty of “Ode to Billie Joe” is that we don’t know the backstory. This is why the film fails as a piece of art — and could not have done anything but fail. A novel would do the same thing. But I think a great novel could be written based upon the ending: two women of different generations, living together, having just lost the loves of their lives.

There are dangerous questions in great literature. The most dangerous is, “What happened?” You don’t want to know. It’s the mystery that we love — the not knowing. Once it is concrete, there is nothing special about it. Billie Joe and the narrator could have been dropping anything off that bridge. Billie Joe could have killed himself for any number of reasons. In the film, the answers are: a teddy bear and because of a drunken homosexual encounter. Feel better? Of course not! Those are pathetic answers. I could provide ten better ones for you this evening.

One thing is for certain, Bobbie Gentry didn’t know what the answers to these questions were. There was some kind of relationship. And her family was clueless about it. Except for her mother, who I think the song indicates knows something. But maybe not. Does anyone know our secret thoughts and feelings? Probably not.

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