In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: songs that tell a story.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a ginormous fan of the story song, popularized in the 1960s and ’70s, where entire sagas were spelled out in simple verse-verse-chorus-verse construction. One of the genre’s most popular examples, however, raised more questions than it answered. Bobbie Gentry’s biggest hit was “Ode To Billie Joe,” in which the young narrator tells the story—against a backdrop of biscuits and small-town Mississippi gossip—of how Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. It became Billboard’s No. 3 song of 1967.
A few things are frustrating about this legendary song, and not just that it leaves lingering questions. Gentry lobs verse after verse our way as the narrator and her family discuss Billie Joe’s death over a dinner of black-eyed peas, with no sign of a chorus or a (non-Choctaw) bridge; we’d be grateful for a drum solo, for God’s sake. So we are destined to follow along as everyone discusses why Billie Joe jumped, but no one has a straightforward answer. The only clue is that the local pastor saw someone who looked just like the narrator with Billie Joe, tossing something off the bridge. The most likely and saddest theory is that it was a stillborn baby, and Billie Joe’s guilt over that death leads him to make his fatal dive.
In a November 1967 interview, Bobbie Gentry said that the question she was most often asked was why Billie jumped. Several theories also floated around about what he and the narrator threw off the bridge: Less tragic options included drugs, flowers, an engagement ring, or a draft card. Instead, she points to other themes in the song, such as the small-town community, referenced by the church, the picture show, and the sawmill. Also, the narrator’s mother falls apart in the final verse after her husband dies, but the narrator is strong enough to go on after Billie Joe’s death. Which is all well and good, but we still want to know why he jumped off the fucking bridge, making the song, in the end, a giant tease.
Only a few of these story songs ever inspired dramatization, like The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia and Harper Valley P.T.A. “Ode To Billie Joe” eventually found its way to a 1976 movie, directed by Max Baer, best known as Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies. The movie promised that “what the song didn’t tell you, the movie will show you,” but it took a surprisingly different turn (and changed the spelling of Billie’s name to Billy). When screenwriter Herman Raucher met with Gentry to find out why Billie Joe committed suicide, she admitted she didn’t know at all. So the movie recast Billy Joe as a gay teenager in 1960 Mississippi. Although he believes himself to be in love with Bobbie Lee (the character name a nod to the composer of the song), after he gets drunk at a party one night, he has sex with a man. Robby Benson, king of 1970s teen issue movies like Jeremy and The Death Of Richie, knew how to effectively convey Billy Joe’s anguish, alongside his frequent co-star Glynnis O’Connor, who is our apparent narrator. He rages in despair over what he considers an unnatural act, leading to his suicidal jump. At the end of the movie, Bobbie Lee throws flowers off the bridge for Billy Joe, just like in the song.