He understood that shivering better now. He was the conduit, the open window, by which, on rare occasions, she felt the ventus Dei. In the center of her sensuality, she was God’s plaything.John Updike, “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer”
Seems like nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
When you mention poetry to most people, you will invoke for them images of dead bards and the English majors who love them, depressed teenagers, and teenagers in teenaged love. There may be a surreptitiously rolled eye or two as well. Poetry is not for the masses, or so they think.
Of course that isn’t true. Poetry is integrated into our everyday lives through popular music. In many if not most cases, song lyrics are poems accompanied by music. Lyrics and arrangements that resonate with the public become hits; those that don’t languish as filler tracks.
I was reminded of the poetic nature of popular music when I heard Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on BBC Manchester this week. The combination of the mysterious lyrics, lush arrangement, and rough vocals vaulted the song to a No. 1 spot in 1967. Later, as a nostalgia craze for the 1960s and ’70s started to take root, a movie version (with one possible solution revealed) was released.
Gentry has said that she doesn’t know what Billy Jo (the spelling in the lyrics) and the girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. This seems likely to me; it’s also not clear, for example, that Margaret Mitchell knew any more about the future of Rhett and Scarlett than her readers. “Tomorrow is another day” tells us only that Scarlett isn’t defeated and that all things are possible.
Gentry’s allusions leave a number of possibilities open, none of them right or wrong. She has said that the lyrics focus on the cold, nonchalant way the girl’s family discusses Billy Joe’s suicide. Gentry captures the essence of small-town life and gossip. With the Vietnam War and anti-war protests dominating the news, the family turns its attention to something local that each of them knows something about. Papa says Billy Joe “never had a lick of sense”; Brother says he talked to Billy Joe after church last Sunday night and ran into him at the sawmill; and Mama mentions that the new preacher saw a girl who looked a lot like her daughter with Billy Joe, throwing something off the bridge. All of these references, and the casual ones to what seems to be a tragic suicide, are interspersed with “pass the biscuits, please” and “I’ll have another piece of apple pie,” as though to make the point that life goes on in its most mundane ways without room or time for emotions.
Gentry’s lyrics unveil the underlying story. Brother says, “You know, it don’t seem right,” indicating that Billy Joe didn’t seem suicidal. Now there are two mysteries: What did he (and the girl) throw off the bridge, and why did he suddenly kill himself? Are the two events related? How?
The girl’s identity does not seem to be part of the mystery. She is quiet during the conversation and doesn’t even comment when Brother mentions a prank played on her. and her mother notices her lack of appetite. If she is the girl who was with Billy Joe, she keeps it to herself and doesn’t want anyone to know. Her family, consciously or unconsciously, add to her feelings of grief and possibly guilt.
It’s not my point to resolve the questions, especially since the writer has offered no answers. Much of the song’s interest lies in interpreting the clues. Does Mama emphasize “young” when talking about the new preacher to make a point to the girl about his availability as an alternative to Billy Joe? What about Choctaw Ridge is associated with “no good”? Is it a poor area, a teen hangout, or a spot with an evil past? Is the family engaging in idle gossip, or are they colluding to make a point to the girl? There are no set answers, nor should there be.
What makes “Ode to Billie Joe” poetic is the spare but effective way in which the story is told. Nothing is stated, leaving much to be inferred. By the end, through only a few details, the listener (or reader) can see how the family might represent the decline of small-town farming America. With the father dead, Brother abandons the farm for his wife and their new store in town, and the mother and daughter are left with their grief for their respective losses.
Gentry doesn’t describe Choctaw Ridge or the Tallahatchie Bridge, but we don’t need to know what they look like for them to serve as the song’s emotional centers. The rhythm of the names, combined with their repetition, sears them into our memories. Both places are haunted by the girl who picks flowers on the ridge to throw off the bridge and by the emotions associated with an unexplained tragedy.
To experience the richness of life, you must first survive its sadness.Diane Schirf
Did I really write this?
In a little while from now
If I’m not feeling any less sour
I promise myself to treat myself
And visit a nearby tower
And climbing to the top will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to whoever
What it’s like when you’re shattered
Left standing in the lurch at a church
Where people saying: “My God, that’s tough”
“She stood him up”
“No point in us remaining”
“We may as well go home”
As I did on my own
Alone again, naturally
To think that only yesterday
I was cheerful, bright and gay
Looking forward to who wouldn’t do
The role I was about to play?
But as if to knock me down
Reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt
Talk about God in His mercy
Who if He really does exist
Why did He desert me?
In my hour of need
I truly am indeed
Alone again, naturally
It seems to me that there are more hearts
Broken in the world that can’t be mended
What do we do? What do we do?
Alone again, naturally
Looking back over the years
And whatever else that appears
I remember I cried when my father died
Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old
My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn’t understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start with a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken
And when she passed away
I cried and cried all day
Alone again, naturally
Alone again, naturallyAlone Again, Naturally by Gilbert O’Sullivan
She had a strange power of realising things from another’s point of view; it was only from her own that she was narrow; but when mentally she looked from Teddy’s she saw clearly, judged herself from it and understood, and did not wonder much. Only there was this great bitterness — it was all done in ignorance, a result of the strange fetters that seemed to bind her body and soul. If she could only once have broken away from them, and have found the voice that was never hers save in the secret recesses of her heart, where, as if in an iron chamber from which it gave no outward sign, a restless fire burnt that made a still agony of life — if just once she had dared to put into words that which she knew well she could never have said at all, for before it reached her lips it would have become distorted, and her voice uncertain and husky. It was no use. For ever before his eyes and in his thoughts she must be the woman she seemed, without charm, passion, or excitement. His judgment was just; she knew and felt her own narrowness, the narrowness of her outward self, and had no power to help it. It was as if there dwelt in her some other soul besides the one she showed to the world and lived by — some soul that told her of the dulness of its mate, of the unattractiveness of her face and form, of the commonplaceness of her words and gestures, of the bands that bound down her heart, so that even from its depths there came only lukewarm utterances while it vainly longed to find the voice that should have been its natural one. Oh! it was terrible to have that absolute knowledge of self, with the consciousness of the uselessness and hopelessness of striving against it; to know that she had no power to be other than she seemed, to appear other than the woman she looked. A common thing enough, perhaps; for many have secret souls with which to feel, and working ones with which to make themselves felt and known.And if they are judged according to the latter, is it not fair enough in these days, in which it matters little what a man is, but only what he does?— Lucy Clifford, “The End of Her Journey”
And the thought for the day — and a lifetime — is:
Won’t get fooled again.— You know Who