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After decades, deeper meanings in ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ come rushing back

Bobbie Gentry’s chart-topping hit still resonates as a story of male vulnerability and unfathomable loss.

"We were in our 20s, unable to distinguish love from passion or to foresee how to extend a summer of love into a lifetime of raising a child."Wikimedia Commons/rawpixel.com

In the 1980s, I taught for a year in the Deep South and had a love affair along the kudzu-snarled banks of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Penelope (not her real name) was a love child who’d been adopted and raised in Missouri by a conservative Baptist family. She once told me if I wanted to understand the South, I needed to listen to “Ode to Billie Joe.” These memories came back recently as I tried to comprehend anti-vaxxers, voting restrictions, Southern leaders seemingly intent on disaster, and, most of all, the Texas law prohibiting most abortions.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967, is an elegy that became a hit in many countries, knocking “All You Need Is Love” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” out of the number one spot on the charts. The song and album won three Grammys. Gentry was just 23 years old when the Southern Gothic song she wrote, sang, and produced caused a sensation. Her manuscripts can be found alongside those of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in the archives of the University of Mississippi, in the state where she was born.

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The song begins with a mother calling her family in from picking cotton and haying. Around the dinner table they learn the day’s news: Billie Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

In the tradition of Southern novelists Kate Chopin and Flannery O’Connor, the song mines buried truths and turns on painful secrets. The song’s narrator is too undone by the tragedy to eat. Between passing the black-eyed peas and talk of churchgoing, the mother, almost as an aside, recounts that the preacher, Brother Taylor, had dropped by earlier and shared some information. “He saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge / And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” The mother is going to invite the preacher to dinner one Sunday, a terrifying prospect for the narrator, who we come to understand was in love with Billie Joe and, we are given to believe, might have borne his child. Theories abound about what the pair tossed from the bridge. The worst of them speculates that it was their baby, sacrificed to the river gods.

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In the shadow of the pastoral power of the church and hardscrabble poverty, the family is powerless to adequately deal with the death. Billie Joe, the narrator’s father says, didn’t have a “lick of sense anyway.” It’s his own fault he’s dead. The lyrics capture both their own time and ours. Around our dinner tables we have long struggled to talk about loss, be it suicide or the death of a child.

When I was 15, my older brother’s rock-climbing partner was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs in New Paltz, N.Y. He was an excellent climber, and we have long believed that he jumped for fear of coming out to his father. When my uncle learned that his longtime friend Howard’s car was parked at the Golden Gate Bridge but Howard was nowhere to be seen — they never found the body — I remember my uncle’s intense sorrow. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, on average 20 veterans and ex-military commit suicide every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adolescent boys are four more times likely to die of suicide than girls. If Western literature began with the line This is the story of Achilles’ rage, Gentry has given us another side of the story, a Gordian knot at the center of so many of our divisions and struggles: not rage but male hopelessness and a struggle to feel love.

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Toward the end of “Ode” we learn: “There was a virus going ‘round / papa caught it, and he died last spring.” Years go by. No one moves forward, but the narrator cannot look away. She spends some time picking flowers on Choctaw Ridge, dropping them into the muddy waters. The song ends with a profound sense of ruination from Billie Joe’s death.

A country music trail marker for Bobbie Gentry in Mississippi.Eames Heard/Wikimedia Commons

Gentry herself turned away from public life in 1975, but in interviews at the time, there is a note of frustration that the ode defined her. “I have happy songs, too,” she told After Dark in 1974, a year before she went Full Garbo. She named a follow-up record “A Delta Sweetie.” But her ode had entered the public realm, and in that realm, then and now, many of us feel deeply the fate of Billie Joe, his lover, and their baby. In the post-’60s milieu, we embraced sexual and reproductive freedoms, and we celebrated women’s dominion over their bodies and changing social standards around pleasure.

But free love wasn’t really free. My love child with Penelope would be 35 today, and if age brings any wisdom, it’s in knowing that our child would have added as many years of smiles and joy to the world. But we were in our 20s, unable to distinguish love from passion or to foresee how to extend a summer of love into a lifetime of raising a child. With the pregnancy terminated, I took the first train north. Penelope left her family and moved to California, where she married someone else and raised a son. And though we since made amends over a wistful dinner in Berkeley, a piece of my heart revisits the river.

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It’s understandable that even Gentry herself seems to shy away from that central theme. In 1967, as the song went around the world and well before she became a recluse, Gentry told KRLA Beat, “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 off the bridge rather like Ophelia in ‘Hamlet.’”

“Ode to Billie Joe” gives the world a work of art that grapples with a reality still largely unexplored: the complexity and fatalism of male shame and pain. And it took a woman, a poor farm girl born Roberta Lee Streeter, raised by her grandmother in a home without plumbing or electricity, to pen a ballad that tapped a deep vein of male trauma and illustrated our inability to name it.

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If you are experiencing a mental-health crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. Also available is the Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741. To learn more about mental health treatment options in general, go to: nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments.

Mark G. Wagner is founding director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University.