Many of us have favorite stories we return to again and again. Even though we know the characters, the incidents, and how the whole thing turns out, there’s something about the telling that draws us back to experience those stories anew. The story that Bobbie Gentry tells in her song “Ode to Billie Joe” is like that.
That is some brilliant piece of writing—Gentry sketches the scene around the family dining table so effectively that we can almost smell the biscuits and coffee, and her closing image of the narrator throwing flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge is haunting. But good writing isn’t just knowing what to put in, it’s knowing what to leave out, and what Gentry leaves out is what has made her record a classic for 45 years now. Why did Billie Joe McAllister commit suicide, and why so suddenly? What were Billie Joe and the narrator spotted throwing off the bridge? As Mississippi cotton farmers might have said back then, what in the Sam Hill is going on here?
In 1976, the movie Ode to Billy Joe filled in the gaps: the narrator (named Bobbie Lee in the movie) and Billy Joe (spelled that way in the movie) are in love, but her family objects, claiming they’re too young. Billy Joe eventually jumps to his death out of homosexual guilt, and what the two of them threw off the bridge was Bobbie Lee’s ragdoll, a symbol for discarding her childhood.
And that’s the difference between good writing and bad writing right there.
Gentry once said that the song is “sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.” The family talks idly about Billie Joe’s death without realizing that the narrator was in love with him. Gentry also said, “What was thrown off the bridge isn’t that important.”
“Ode to Billie Joe” was recorded in about 40 minutes on July 10, 1967, and it first appeared on the Billboard singles chart less than three weeks later. It hit #1 in mid-August and spent four weeks at the top. Gentry won three Grammys the next year, including Best New Artist, and was frequently featured on Glen Campbell’s TV variety show, in addition to recording with him. She had a brief run with her own show in 1974, and was credited as co-writer of the Ode to Billy Joe movie. But in the late 70s, she checked out of public view altogether, denying interview requests ever since. She lives quietly in California to this day, as far as anyone knows.
The Ode to Billie Joe album has the singular distinction of displacing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at #1 on the Billboard 200, after a 12-week run. It spent two weeks at the summit beginning October 15, 1967.