Ode to Billie Joe  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Ode to Billie Joe is a 1967 song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in late July, was a massive number-one hit in the USA, and became a big international seller. The title song is ranked #412 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".

The story

Although the song is recounted as a first person narrative, the Southern Gothic tale is revealed through the dialogue of others.

As the narrator sits down to a meal with her family, "Mama" casually states that the word from Choctaw Ridge is that "Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," apparently to his death.

None too surprised, family members exchange memories about Billie Joe, and Mama notices the narrator's loss of appetite. Mama casually recounts her visit with the local preacher, Brother Taylor, that morning. Brother Taylor saw Billie Joe and a girl who looked a lot like the narrator throwing something from the Tallahatchie Bridge not too long ago. A year passes. The narrator's brother has married and moved away, her father has died and her mother is despondent. The narrator herself often visits the bridge to drop flowers from it.

Mystery craze

The mysteries surrounding the characters in the story created a cultural sensation. In 1975, Gentry told author Herman Raucher that she hadn't come up with a reason for Billie Joe's suicide when she wrote the song. She has stated in numerous interviews over the years that the focus of the song was not the suicide itself, but rather the matter-of-fact way that the narrator's family was discussing the tragedy over dinner, unaware that Billie Joe had been her boyfriend ("Then Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas,/'Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please./There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow....'"). "Ode" was so popular in 1967 that Frank Sinatra, who loved it, asked jazz great Ella Fitzgerald to sing a few verses for his TV special. The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, including three wins. A popular speculation at the release of the song in 1967 was that the narrator and Billie Joe threw their baby (either stillborn or aborted) off the bridge, and Billie Joe then killed himself out of grief and guilt. This version of events is made clear on the Sinead O'Connor version, where a baby is heard to cry at the moment the mystery item is thrown off the bridge. There was also speculation that Billie Joe was a black man, having a forbidden affair with the white narrator.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ode to Billie Joe" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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