Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

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I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post).  And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more.  There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”

For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955.  Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman.  (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.  Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.)  Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.

There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all.  The myth of Southern gentility and propriety.  The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us.  The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.”  Sex, race, class.  And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.

When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss.  (Note that the spelling is different.  Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.)  Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide.  If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.

I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer.  As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song.  The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices.  They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song.  The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned?  Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this?  What the fuck is going on here?

The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking.  Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”

There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry.  While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip.  And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now.  But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983.  She just dropped out of sight.  Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her.  Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything.    In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river.  She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.

“Burn That Bridge”

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I discovered this song/video a couple weeks ago.  I know there are a number of young Country music artists who are more inclusive of LGBTQ people and issues, but this is the first time I’ve heard a performer talk about their music being explicitly about a same-sex couple.  (Here’s a link to the interview with Billboard.)  It reminds me just how important representation in media and popular culture really is.  If you never see people who look/feel/think/behave like you in the culture you consume, the subliminal message is that you are both inferior and invisible.  If you do see people who look/feel/think/behave like you, then you have role models and the subliminal message is that you are both seen and worthy of being seen.  That you are normal and not some kind of a freak.  I’m sure “Burn That Bridge” is going to matter in that way for some young gay dude in the middle of cowboy country who thinks he’s the only guy who ever felt this way.  Representation matters.

But issues of representation aside, here’s what I really like about Donovan Woods’ song and video: 1) It’s a pretty damn good song–nice emotion, good slow build; 2) Those young men are fantastic dancers.  Yeah, representation in media and popular culture matters, but it helps if that representation is attached to culture that refuses to stereotype the people it portrays and is quality entertainment.  This one scores on all counts.

Don Williams

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It’s been a bad day for Country music, losing both a latter-day star and one of the old timers from the 70s.  While the death of Troy Gentry is more tragic, my own heart is a little heavier over the passing of Don Williams.  My mother wore out the grooves on her copy of his Greatest Hits.  So needless to say, Williams’ beautiful baritone is a fond and familiar one from my childhood.

At least Williams got the chance to live a long-ish and full life.  Gentry’s death at 50 in a helicopter crash seems so much more unfair.  As I get older myself, other people all seem to get younger, and 50 is too damn young.  Traveling is as much of a hazard to musicians as too much drugs and alcohol; they spend so much of their lives on the road it makes a sad sense that that same road claims so many of them.  My brain tells me this is just how it is, but my heart protests.  At least their music will survive for all who loved them.

Glen Campbell

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He did better songs.  Some of them were truly beautiful and brought tears to my eyes.  But to me, Glen Campbell will always be the Rhinestone Cowboy.

While he will always be best remembered (and rightly so) for his own, numerous hits, I think it’s important to note here that Glen Campbell was also once in the Wrecking Crew.  L.A.’s answer to the Swampers at Muscle Shoals, the Wrecking Crew were a set of crack studio sidemen that played on just about every hit recorded out here in the 1960s.  He was a consummate, versatile musician and singer.  Upon being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, Campbell embarked on a touring and recording spree to get as much of his extensive musical memory and talent down before he was robbed of it forever.  Alzheimer’s robbed Campbell of himself, and it finally claimed his life today at 81.

“Devilish Mary”

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Today would’ve been Daddy’s 75th birthday.  That’s the only reason I dug up this chestnut.  I debated using some Wagner or Monk, or a song by one of Daddy’s other favorites.  But then I decided this happy memory from my childhood was a better choice.

I’ve shared before my love of the old Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland (now fated to never return since they’re building Star Wars Land in its area of the park).  The music in that show was the kind of music they call Americana now, but it was the kind of music my father grew up listening to in Iowa.  I remember being very small, not more than five, sitting in Daddy’s lap while he bounced his knee in time as the animatronic bears sang this song.