Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are about to present the facts of what happened in and around the vicinity of Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi, on the day of April 22nd, 1960. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.
We're just kidding, of course. To this day, there is not a shred of evidence to back up the events of the story told by Bobbie Gentry's 1967 smash hit "Ode to Billie Joe." To the amateur sleuths and wanna-be Agatha Christies out there: we're sincerely sorry to bust your bubble. But that's the point of Southern Gothic; to make you wonder.
Oh, sure, even though Bobbie Gentry is not her real name (Roberta Lee Streeter holds that honor), she really did grow up in Mississippi, and Choctaw Ridge, Carroll County, Tupelo, and the Tallahatchie River are all real places in Mississippi. There are, in fact, seven bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, at least two of which are within reasonable distance of Choctaw Ridge. It would seem that all you have to do is go dredge the river for the body.
But, see, there isn't any real body. And, if you insist on taking every word of the song for the Gospel truth, then you also have to allow for the fact that the whole town is talking about the suicide of Billie Joe MacAllister, including the whole family buzzing about it around the dinner table. Presumably, nearly-identical conversations are going on all over town at every family's dinner table. The preacher, Brother Taylor, knows about it. This is not a cover-up. Everybody was seen in public, and the river would have already been dredged for the body, the body buried, and anything else that was thrown in the river would have been found, too.
People seem to have a hard time accepting the fiction of this song. In a world where novelists routinely fabricate hundreds of pages of made-up characters and events, why is it so hard to accept that a five-verse song is fiction? But then, Southern Gothic is like that sometimes. It's meant to be compelling and intriguing.
Seeing as how Goth culture gets so much attention and following in the United States, it is ironic that the Gothic style of that culture reflects the European flavor of Gothic, while we have our own home-grown flavor of Gothic which largely gets ignored. Southern Gothic is a fiction style that takes classical Gothic character and situation types and superimposes them onto Deep South American culture, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A dash of the grotesque is mandatory. Works which fit into the Southern Gothic genre include novels such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, and films such as Deliverance and Wild At Heart. Most American horror is Southern Gothic style.
Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" is a very artful work of the Southern Gothic style. The story implies much, much more than is told, leaving the listener with more questions than answers by the end. Clearly, something is not quite right, and furthermore it is going on under everyone's nose, with only the singer knowing the rest of the story and keeping her secret. That's how Gothic works; you don't show the monster. You keep the door locked and suggest that there might be a monster behind it. When Sinead O'Connor did her cover version, she punctuated the line "and she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge" with the sound of a baby crying is missing the point.
Because you were already imagining something even more dreadful.
Jimmie Haskell's string arrangment on this song, which won a Grammy award, was a masterwork and a feat of innovation.
Speaking with Gary Theroux in his History of Rock 'n' Roll series, Haskell said that he was given full creative freedom with the arrangement, simply because Capitol Records wasn't going to bother giving him specific instructions for a song intended as a B-side. "Bobbie's lyrics are like a movie, so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie," he said.
String sections at the time were typically four violins, one viola, and one cello, but Haskell used four violins and two cellos. "I was able to use one cello to play a pizzicato bass part, and the other cello to play a traditional bowed string part," he said. "I had to think of a bass line that would not make the cello sound phony because the usual bass line in those days was 'Doom, duh doom, duh doom, duh doom doom doom doom doom, duh doom...' I thought, What's my cello player gonna play that has the fewest notes? Well, I figured out a bass line with only three notes every two bars. It was, 'Doom, [snaps fingers three times], duh doom [snaps fingers three times], doom. Every once in awhile the player might add an extra note. [producer] Kelly listened to the first rehearsal. Then he walked over to where the cello was playing (it's called pizzicato when you pluck the strings). Kelly kneeled in front of the cello and put his ear near the f-hole (on stringed instruments, it sounds like a dirty word but it's because it is shaped like the letter "F") and remarked, 'Keep playing.' Kelly then asked his engineer, Joe Polito, to put the mike right on the cello. And Kelly got a good sound. I decided I couldn't write too much, so after the introduction there isn't much going on with the violins. But the cello is still playing along with Bobbie's guitar. As it turned out, all Capitol had to do was pay the string players overtime. The musicians' union eventually didn't allow arrangers to score music for two artists on the same date."
Album : Ode To Billie Joe Released : 1967 US chart position : 1 UK chart position : 13