Who killed Billie Joe McAllister? Or did he jump? What was thrown off that bridge? And why? These are just some of the questions raised by a controversial new song called ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ written by a young Southern girl, Bobbie Gentry. The record is unique; a narrative rather than a song, beautifully depicting life in a small southern town.
“Life in the south is very different from life in California. The church was terribly important in our lives, in every Southerner’s life. It was in the Church that I learned my music; first in the choir, then in quartets and sextets.”
“I had no real playmates as a child, and so the piano that we had became my best friend. I began to play when I was three or four, and I used to always try and play on the black keys, because I remembered the lady who played in church always played on the black keys! It wasn’t until I later studied piano formally that I realised most hymns and gospel songs were written in minor keys.”
It is her ability to remember the details of Southern life and relate them in a song that has produced a work of the importance of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. Her weaving of a mood and re-creation of a situation is flawless. The deep tragedy of Billie Joe tempered with the normalcy of a family eating dinner is remarkably effective.
“The meaning of the song is to show how little people actually care about other people. How they can discuss this terrible thing calmly as they ask for more food. I wanted to show the casualness and unawareness of people.”
Although there has been a great controversy over what they were throwing off the bridge, Bobbie negates this aspect of the song saying, “It’s not really important what they are throwing of the bridge. The important thing is that people don’t care what happened to another person. I don’t really know what they are throwing of the bridge exactly. It’s not important. The girl broke up with Billie Joe up on the bridge, so maybe it was token of their relationship that they threw of the bridge. But it wasn’t a person, and she didn’t push him. That becomes obvious if you listen to all the words in the song.”
“Her parents didn’t know of the relationship because perhaps Billie Joe was of another religion, which would be very important to a Southern Baptist family, or maybe because he was from the wrong side of town, as the line ‘nothing ever comes to any good up on Choctaw Ridge’ suggests. At any rate her parents weren’t aware of what was going on.”
Does He Die?
“Only the preacher knows for sure what had happened, that she was with Billie Joe. I feel he would use that to get close to the family. The Mother wants the girl to marry the preacher, as do all good Southern Baptist families want their daughters to marry preachers. The same was true for me, whenever I would visit my grandparents, they would always have the preacher come to dinner, hoping that I would marry him.”
“I never say for certain that Billie Joe is dead, only that he jumped. So it isn’t necessarily suicide, but it certainly isn’t murder. Billie Joe was alone when he jumped. He jumped because things were too much for him, but the girl didn’t have any idea that he would do a thing like that. In the end everything sort of falls apart for the girl, after she hears what happened to Billie Joe. Anyway she sort of goes mad at the end, throwing flowers of the bridge rather like Ophelia in Hamlet.”
“But I want to add that not all of my songs are sad or as deep as this one. Many of my songs are happy. In fact most of the songs on my album are happy. They all deal with life in the South but I don’t want to start a pattern.”