Ode to Ode
January 26, 2003 3:46 PM   Subscribe

From one of the most underrated performers on the 1960's came one of the most mysterious records of all time, which inspired not only a movie but an answer record from none other than Bob Dylan. Greil Marcus devotes a chunk of a book(ostensibly about Dylan) to "Ode," where he makes connections between it and Bonnie & Clyde, released around the same time. Someone once said that "Ode To Billy Joe" sounded ancient the day it came out and that may be some part of it's appeal. I remeber hearing the song on oldies stations as a kid and even then being drawn into the mystery of it. I listened to it as I typed this post and I'm still plumbing it's depths today.
posted by jonmc (38 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
good post jon , youre not losing your touch !
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:09 PM on January 26, 2003

After which, move on to Bye, Bye, American Pie.
posted by Postroad at 5:11 PM on January 26, 2003

jon, you weren't by any chance watching an infomercial on PAX last night? the one hosted by john sebastian? it was the first time i thought about her and that record in years, and then here it turns up on mefi!
posted by quonsar at 5:11 PM on January 26, 2003

jonmc, I will have to come back to some of these links since they are temporarily down, but just wanted to add this point of connection...I learned from y2Kark that the river & bridge that is the scene of this song was also the scene of the Emmett Till"s death, which was discussed on mefi recently. It just adds another dimension to the mysteriousness of the song.

PETE SEEGER: March 1968... "Life" Magazine showed a full-page photo of long-haired Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge, which figured in her song, "Ode to Billie Joe." And some of us did a double take. The location is Money, Mississippi -- a mile or two from where Emmett Till's body was found! Last year, there was a joke among black Americans. They knew what was thrown off that bridge. source
posted by madamjujujive at 5:12 PM on January 26, 2003

Here's a Moog version of Ode to Billie Joe you may want to check out (scroll down to #11).
posted by jonp72 at 5:17 PM on January 26, 2003

Few songs can be attributed with the "sui generis" label; but this one qualifies. "What the hell was she throwing off the bridge" was going through everyone's mind at the time, although I never once talked about the song with anyone. Very very weird.
posted by kozad at 5:35 PM on January 26, 2003

In 1993, Sinead O'Connor did a fantastic cover of the song, for the Warchild benefit album. Thanks for the link jonmc. Not sure how the Dylan song is an answer record... maybe I need to read the Greil Marcus book.
posted by jonson at 6:07 PM on January 26, 2003

[this is good]

Great post, jonmc, but frustrating! Why didn't you find any answers for us? WHY?!?! I've always wondered what this song was really about, I just assumed/hoped that it was something well-known at the time the song was written and I just hadn't heard about it because I was too young at the time and too lazy to look it up since. I take it Bobbie Gentry never explained it? It does sound ancient, it sounds as if it's about something very specific and legendary, which makes the fact that there don't seem to be any concrete answers about it that much more frustrating.

My impression was always far more sinister than the film implies, I always wondered if Billy Joe and the girl had killed someone and that what they threw off the bridge was the body, the murder weapon or some evidence, and that he killed himself because he couldn't live with the guilt, and/or because he knew people were beginning to suspect. I think the mother and brother both sound as if they suspect something - the mother doesn't sound indifferent to me (as one of your links implies), she sounds somewhat threatening and suspicious, and the way the brother says he saw the girl talking to Billy Joe also seems like he's insinuating something. I interpreted this as either factual (they did suspect something) or as the girl's being paranoid because of her guilty conscience. I saw this post and got excited - maybe I'd finally know what it was really about...but noooooo... Argh.
posted by biscotti at 6:21 PM on January 26, 2003

I take it Bobbie Gentry never explained it?

Ms. Gentry was always cryptic about it. Saying that what they trew wasn't the point, that it's the surrounding events that matter, and she may be right. But you cant help but be drawn in by the mystery anyway, I guess.
posted by jonmc at 6:24 PM on January 26, 2003

Having been a teenager at the time, my friends and I all thought the song's character got pregnant without the benefit of marriage, and to escape the shame of it (I know, things were different then!) threw her baby off the bridge.
posted by Lynsey at 6:27 PM on January 26, 2003

I'll confess to not having given it a great deal of thought, but I had always assumed the same as Lynsey - that the couple had aborted a baby, and tossed the evidence. Billie Joe couldn't handle it, and jumped himself. End of story, except for the protagonist left throwing flowers off the bridge for both her child and for Billie Joe.

Of course, I also sang along to that classic Tommy James song "Hanging Around", so take my opinion for what it's worth.
posted by yhbc at 6:36 PM on January 26, 2003

That was my interpretation too, Lynsey, (and Commish, on preview).
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:37 PM on January 26, 2003

If in fact, they are refferring to throwing a child off the bridge, it would fit squarely in the tradition of the appalachian "murder ballad" promulgated by the likes of Dock Boggs, or Clarence Ashley who did the best known version of the chilling example of the form "Omie Wise".

In this context "OTBJ" is both an excellent example of Bobbie Gentry's talent and ear for tradition , and how deeply those traditions are embedded even in this mass media saturated age, and of how tradition and popular cuklture can be reconciled.
posted by jonmc at 6:49 PM on January 26, 2003

I always assumed that the heroine of the song lured Billy to the bridge and then pushed him off because he put a frog down her dress at the picture show. And after all, the preacher did see a girl that looked "a lot like her" around the same time Billy was up there.
posted by pb at 7:10 PM on January 26, 2003

Hmm. Resonances here with a blogpost of mine over 2 years past. The original bridge -- which collapsed in 1972, a fact now noted in "on this day in rock history" compilations -- has been replaced by a simple concrete slab crossing, which was in the Toronto Star article I linked to.

In any case, as with American Pie (the song, not the movie), Pulp Fiction, Repo Man, and several Hitchcock films, the McGuffin at the center is the allure of the work.
posted by dhartung at 7:36 PM on January 26, 2003

So, what did Julio and the protagonist do behind the schoolyard?
posted by argybarg at 7:37 PM on January 26, 2003

Best cover I've ever heard of this eerie song is from Henry Kaiser's Those Who Know History Are Doomed To Repeat It, in which the song starts as a weary,somewhat lazy, country ballad and then upon reaching the key verse turns in to a menacing minor key descent into hell. Worth a listen.
posted by Windopaene at 7:43 PM on January 26, 2003

This Page has some more odd covers of "OTBJ", including Hammond master Jimmy Smith's musically impressive but thematically incongrous organ instrumental version, among others.
posted by jonmc at 7:50 PM on January 26, 2003

argybarg - HA! nice.
the world still wonders, the world still worries.
posted by Peter H at 8:33 PM on January 26, 2003

didn't the movie starring robbie benson explain it... kinda, unofficially...? he was in love with the girl but he either willingly had a homosexual experience or was molested by another boy and ended up not being able to live with that event. or i'm completely off my nut and remember the movie in a completely skewed way. i was only 15 when it came out but i remember something "shameful" happening in a barn that didn't include the girl...

regardless, i've always loved that song, it's an odd and mournful thing and the mystery helps to make it what it is.
posted by t r a c y at 8:48 PM on January 26, 2003

Don't ask Paul Simon, argybarg -- he doesn't know.
posted by Guy Smiley at 8:49 PM on January 26, 2003

jonmc: Could those have been any more odd than a cover from Howlin' Wolf? Well, the Wolf grew up in West Point, Miss. (not the Delta - further east, closer to Alabama - but still cotton growing territory) so . . . OK, what about Buddy Rich? Or the Supremes? Jaco Pastorius?
posted by raysmj at 8:50 PM on January 26, 2003

I saw the movie when I was about 10...I think the fat sweaty southern sheriff did something nasty to Billy Joe and so he jumped off the bridge in shame...
posted by mecran01 at 9:04 PM on January 26, 2003

You can sing the words to "Ode to Billy Joe" to the tune of "1999" by the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.


In the Robby Benson movie, Robby had a quasi-willing (as I recall it) gay experience which turned into an unwanted gang bang (with Robby as the bangee). A Bad Redneck Sheriff was involved in there somewhere, too.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:07 PM on January 26, 2003

I love how the one lengthy interpretation of the song explains that it couldn't be a baby they were throwing off the bridge, because the song says they were throwing it, and it doesn't take two people to throw a baby!

I think that if someone saw two people at a bridge together, one of them throwing something, that witness would say they were throwing something off the bridge.

Funny -- I always assumed they were throwing a baby off the bridge, just like the Hemingway story "Hills Like White Elephants" is clearly about a couple discussing an abortion, although it isn't explicitly stated.

And as for "Me and Julio": It took becoming an adult to realize that Paul Simon had no idea and was in fact just pulling our legs. As a kid, I figured that all the adults in the world understood perfectly well what the mama saw, and that I'd know someday.
posted by argybarg at 9:17 PM on January 26, 2003

actually, this thread made me drag out the aforementioned Sinead cover, and my wife noticed that in the faint background immediately after the "throwing something off the Tallahatchee bridge" line, there's an unmistakable infant cry. Having never heard this interpretation before, my mind had always glossed over the sound. Now, it's completely creepy, raises the hair on my arms.
posted by jonson at 9:22 PM on January 26, 2003 [1 favorite]

this months, jan., mojo magazine has an article about ms. gentry. ain't picked up the mag yet, but while browsing i saw the article listed. just fyi.
posted by asparagus_berlin at 10:43 PM on January 26, 2003

Big flaw in the "throwing a baby off the bridge" theory:

As the interpretation said, the family is fairly blase as they discuss it. Wouldn't the family have noticed their daughter was pregnant, and then not, with no baby around?
posted by billder at 11:42 PM on January 26, 2003

billder: That's not a flaw. A family living in poverty can ill afford another mouth to feed, particularly an illegitimate one with its attendant social stigma. Think of the bridge event more in terms of 'back country abortion' and the family continuing 'life as usual' after the daughter has 'done the right thing'.
posted by mischief at 12:05 AM on January 27, 2003

Wouldn't the family have noticed their daughter was pregnant, and then not, with no baby around?

I can attest that a woman can bring a baby to term without her clever sister, with whom she was sharing a house, noticing that she was pregnant.
posted by emf at 2:38 AM on January 27, 2003

Slightly off topic...but I remember watching Jim Stafford on the Johnny Carson show. It was after Stafford married Gentry and Carson asked him "what did they throw off the bridge?" Stafford laughed and said "She won't even tell me." (Or words to that effect.)
posted by ?! at 5:42 AM on January 27, 2003

something "shameful" happening in a barn
i get spam about that sort of thing.
if only i had a bridge to throw the senders off of...
posted by quonsar at 6:35 AM on January 27, 2003

great exegesis, folks. ...now, moving right along to "Finnegan's Wake"...
posted by troutfishing at 6:48 AM on January 27, 2003

So...what's the secret that Sally told the roses?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:52 AM on January 27, 2003

That Robbie Benson movie was directed by Max Baer Jr. Ya know, Jethro (but don't call him that unless you really know him well.) On quadruple preview, I tried to link to the Max Baer bio here: http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Baer%20Jr.,%20Max but everytime I do so, my [/a] after "that" is deleted and replaced with [/href] at the end of the post.

But whatever, good post jonmc.
posted by Tacodog at 7:16 AM on January 27, 2003

For my money, "Ode To Billy Joe" goes on forever, never develops, and for what little pleasure it offers, needs only to be listened to one time. I can recall the year its droning tedium took over AM radio, and it had the salutory effect of driving me to R&B, ethnic and classical stations, and some excellent new musical discoveries. Seeing Bobbie Gentry on a vintage Ed Sullivan Show the other night, I recalled the real reason for her popularity at the time: she was possibly the first female country star to make the mini-skirt her trademark look
posted by Faze at 9:49 AM on January 27, 2003

[dhartung, it's not a MacGuffin, it's an Unresolvable Mystery. From your link: "Once the story is in motion, the MacGuffin loses its importance to an audience and may be completely forgotten." The MacGuffin causes desire only in the characters -- the audience doesn't care about it. This is an unresolved, unresolvable mystery that is central to the work, like the monoloth in 2001. Both the MacGuffin and the Unresolvable Mystery are left unexplained, but one is important to the characters, the other is important to the audience. The MacGuffin is a simple storytelling device while the Mystery becomes the heart of the work.]
posted by muckster at 11:44 AM on January 27, 2003

Faze, you must be kidding - I'm old enough to remember when that song hit the radio and people had no idea whether Bobbie Gentry wore miniskirts or not when they heard the song. All they knew was they'd never heard anything like it and they wondered just what the hell did she and Billie Joe throw off that bridge.

The second biggest "mystery song" of all time was "Timothy" by the Buoys. Was it a man or a mule? Only Rupert Holmes (!), the songwriter, knows for sure ...
posted by pyramid termite at 1:37 PM on January 27, 2003

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