“Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Okay, that’s not news; that’s a line from the song. Or more accurately, that’s the line from the song. As I was skimming my favorite This Day in Rock site for something to write about tonight, I noticed that in addition to being Arlo Guthrie’s birthday (Happy Birthday, Arlo!), and the wedding anniversary of several rockers (who may or may not still be married to these particular spouses), today is the anniversary of the day that Country singer Bobbie Gentry recorded “Ode to Billie Joe.”
There’s something about this song that sticks in your craw. The brilliant Greil Marcus theorized in his brilliant book Invisible Republic (subsequently republished as The Old Weird America), that there’s something in the deadpan delivery, the matter of fact way that Mama reports that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” speaks to something in the American spirit that simply accepts evil as a given. Bad things are going to happen, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so why get worked up? Why waste time and energy railing against the horrors and suffering of the world? You might just as well rail against the wind and rain. Just don’t talk about it. Nothing to see here. Move along. How about that weather?
The obliviousness of the rest of the family to the singer’s reaction to Billie Joe’s death is a form of this attitude. It’s almost a willful blindness, as if anything that isn’t work, dinner, or family has no bearing on their world. They don’t understand how it hits this girl, who was seen “up on Choctaw Ridge, and she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” That’s the great mystery here. What was going on between Billie Joe and this girl? What were they tossing off the bridge? And just why would a young man throw himself off a bridge?
Whatever happened, it’s stunned this girl into silence. But the world keeps turning, in spite of the bombshell that went off at the dinner table that day. A year later, her brother has married and moved away, her father has died, and her mother has sunken into her grief, and she spends “a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge, and drop[s] them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
The repetition of that line, with its variations, is the key to the song. The way Gentry’s voice drops and bottoms out, like a body sinking into the silt at the bottom of a river, speaks volumes about the grief the girl feels. There’s no resolution here. The mystery doesn’t get solved. No one seems to want to talk about anything that matters. They just move around in their little bubbles of grief and unhappiness, working until they can’t work anymore. I’m not sure what that says about the world–whether the tacit acceptance of the bad along with the good is strength or stupidity. It seems like the town in this song is full of ghosts that no one seems to see. I just know I am drawn to this song. There’s something there, some kind of answer about good and evil, living and dying, floating in the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.