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.
Gentry was familiar with the Tallahatchie Bridge since she was born and raised in Mississippi, where she grew up in a home without electricity. She learned to sing in church and her family got her a piano to nurture her musical talents. At age 13, she moved with her mother to Palm Springs, California, and in the ensuing years performed locally taking the stage name Bobbie Gentry (her birth name: Roberta Lee Streeter - she chose the name after seeing Ruby Gentry, a 1952 movie with Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston). After graduating high school, she studied at UCLA, and during this time sent a demo tape of this song to Capitol Records. The demo was just her voice and an acoustic guitar, but Capitol was so impressed that they signed her to a deal.The song was recorded in July, 1967 at Capitol's Los Angeles studios. Gentry basically re-created her demo, singing and playing guitar. Jimmie Haskell, who did the arrangement, added a small string section - two cellos and four violins - and the song was done. Haskell decided against a rhythm section to preserve the cinematic quality of the song.
Album : Ode To Billie Joe Released : 1967 US chart position : 1 UK chart position : 13