Saturday, August 25, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (Bobbie Gentry, on How There’s ‘No Good Up on Choctaw Ridge’)

“Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”—Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe,” from her Ode to Billie Joe LP (1967)

The simple guitar strumming of “Ode to Billie Joe” always summons for me lazy summer days—not just because the action of the song occurred on June 3, “another sleepy, dusty Delta day,” but also because I was first exposed to Bobbie Gentry’s massive hit, through what seemed like virtually every transistor radio in the world, at this time 45 years ago. (In fact, on this day in 1967, it began a four-week run atop the Billboard pop chart as the #1 song in the U.S.)

In the music industry in the summer of 1967, two revolutions were occurring simultaneously. One—the infinitely more publicized “Summer of Love"—was centered on the West Coast, where psychedelic (or “acid”) rock was all the rage. It could be sweetly seductive, as the death this week of Scott McKenzie, the singer of “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, reminded us. Even in his harder moments, such as in the works of Jimi Hendrix or Jefferson Airplane, this music had a power and force that still live.

Unfortunately, at least some of the musicians associated with the Summer of Love couldn’t let their music speak for itself, rising or falling on its own merits. Listen, for instance, to what Country Joe McDonald, the lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, said about the legacy of this musical movement in Sheila Weller's retrospective in the July issue of Vanity Fair: “The Summer of Love became the template: the Arab Spring is related to the Summer of Love; Occupy Wall Street is related to the Summer of Love.  And it became the new status quo….We opened the door, and everybody went through it, and everything changed after that.”

Well, not everything changed "after that." If it had, there wouldn’t have been a need for Occupy Wall Street at all. You want to sing, “I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band” at Country Joe with all your lungpower. It can be argued, for instance, that much of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” felt impelled to support a war killing their own country as much out of anger against long-haired, self-righteous entertainers than out of any genuine support of administration policies. Nor am I sure that, if I were one of those musicians, I’d want my obituary to indicate that I supported drugs that warped, wasted and waylaid thousands of American teens in all the years since.

But enough. There was another sound coming from the radio that summer, a simple guitar backed by an alluring feminine voice that, at the end of each stanza, hinted, with a dying fall, at something darker in America, something in the deep muddy: “the day that Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

In all of pop music, I can think of only one hit single that inspired such a fierce guessing game about what it meant: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” But, while the speculation with Simon involved the callous male lover in her song, Bobbie Gentry’s tune involved something more elemental: Why did Billie Jo MacAllister jump?

The sound in this song doesn’t strike at you, the way so many in the Summer of Love did. But over the years, it has insinuated itself into the American musical consciousness. It has all the enduring mystery of the Sphinx—not unlike Ms. Gentry herself, who, since 1981, not only left the music business but has refused virtually all media requests for interviews.

Like the great Ernest Hemingway stories of the 1920s, before his style became formulaic and puffed-up with the need to prop up his own psyche, more than 80% of "Ode to Billie Joe's" meaning lies beneath the surface. What Papa Hemingway called “the thing left out” suffuses virtually every line.

We learn all the quotidian details of life in the time and place of this song except what’s most important. We hear about the weather (“another sleepy, dusty Delta day”), the family’s chores, what they ate, and their pastimes (“the picture show,” churchgoing). But we don’t learn why Billie Joe jumped off that bridge.

All kinds of explanations have been offered over the years for why he did so:

*that Billie Joe and the speaker had a romantic relationship that ended badly, with one of them throwing a ring off the bridge, and Billie Joe killed himself over the breakup;

*that Billie Joe and the speaker had a stillborn or aborted baby, and that the resulting guilt led him to jump to his death;

*that Billie Joe and the girl were a mixed-race teenaged couple, and that any baby resulting from such a relationship would have been positively explosive and therefore needed to be disposed of;

*that Billie Joe’s suicidal tendencies led the speaker to intervene to save his life, persuading him to throw a gun over the bridge, but that he ended up killing himself anyway;

*that Billie Joe, while drunk, had kissed another teenage boy, and that discovery of this by the girl led him to commit suicide.

The last explanation was offered by novelist-screenwriter (Summer of '42) Herman Raucher, who, when Gentry told him she herself did not know why Billie Joe jumped, created this relationship for the 1975 film Ode to Billy Joe, directed by Max Baer Jr. (yes, Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies).

(By the way, I'm not sure why the film changed the name from "Billie" to "Billy," although it seems that even the single, at one point or another, was labeled "Billy." It simply makes for confusion all around.) 

You'll find these and other possible explanations for the mystery involving the song in this post from the blog "Filibuster Cartoons." But, when you examine the different scenarios offered, they seem to revolve around the kind of things that still would come off like nitroglycerine in the Red States today.

In interviews she gave before her retirement, Gentry indicated that the song was “a study in unconscious cruelty,” showing how the family could proceed with dinner completely blind to the narrator’s obvious discomfort over the news of Billie Joe’s suicide. 

There is that element, surely, but also this: the inscrutability of those who share life with us—not just those we have run across repeatedly in the course of our lives, such as Billie Joe MacAllister, but also the girl seated at the table next to us, struggling with inexpressible depression and grief.

Gentry was no stranger to the Southern Gothic, as indicated by the origin of her stage name (born  Roberta Lee Streeter, she took her surname from the 1952 Jennifer Jones film Ruby Gentry). But here, she wisely abandoned melodrama in favor of a spare examination of the silent tragedies buried deep inside the human heart.

If you look at her photos taken when the song was released, you're likely to exclaim in wonder at that Sixties look: "Look at all that hair." Other artists in that year are better remembered today.

But the music industry recognized her artistry at the time with Grammy Awards. With her dusky Delta voice and evocative but mysterious lyrics (this at a time when female singer-songwriters were not so common), Bobbie Gentry continues to influence artists such as Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, and Reba McIntyre. The best comment I heard about her might have come from Zooey Deschanel, who, in a short piece for Esquire on “Five Women Every Man Should Listen To,” noted: “With that amazing drawl, she taught us all how to spell Mississippi. And then she disappeared.”

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