Monday, July 25, 2016

The mystery of Billie Joe

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and we walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered at the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed 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"
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it just don't seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

I think  more deep psychological meaning has been assigned to this song than (even) MacArthur Park or Inna Gadda Da Vida. I confess here and now that I like it, and that, upon reflection, it's not as schmaltzy as it may appear on the surface.

In only five spare verses, Bobbie Gentry opens up a world. That world is wounded, disaffected, and achingly lonely. The story is about a suicide, but it's also about the callousness of adults casually discussing a young man's death while they scarf down a typical Southern meal ("Pass the biscuits, please").

The food obviously means more to them than the boy, with one exception: a girl sitting at table unable to eat, trying to absorb the shock. Though she narrates the story, she is never named. The trauma and horror of the details accumulate bit by bit, along with her family's indifference towards the  tragedy. And then, of course, there are all those mysteries: who was Billie Joe McAllister, what relationship did he have with the girl, was he black, was he gay, did he make her pregnant? And (most importantly), what were she and Billie Joe throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

Gentry, a Southerner from Mississippi who rebaptised  herself from her birth name Streeter (perhaps to distance herself from her po'-white-trash roots), doesn't explain a lot of things, and has even admitted she doesn't know all the details herself. Great storytelling only implies, leaving lots of space for the listener's interpretation.

A movie was later made about the story, solidifying some of the myths, and I think that spoiled it. Of course, in the movie it's all spelled out: Billie Joe was gay and jumped off the bridge out of sexual guilt. I hate it when someone comes along and plugs all the holes and spaces, usually with the most trite possibilities.

And then there are the "mystery verses". As I began to dig into the enigmatic, brilliantly-written lyrics, I discovered there was a so-called "seven-minute version" featuring only voice and acoustic guitar, which was later cut down to four minutes (still unprecedented in length, except perhaps for MacArthur Park) for radio play. Of course I couldn't find it, and it's doubtful it even exists. This version is tighter, and though the lines somehow fit into the sad, almost bluesy tune, many of them don't scan. This gives them a conversational rhythm that's eerily lifelike. It's one of those things that shouldn't work, but does. Obviously this song has been worked on and worked on, and yet the seams don't show.

I'm no Bobbie Gentry fan, and this genre doesn't interest me at all for the most part, but every time this song comes into my head it arrests my brain. So what was it: an aborted fetus, a wedding certificate, stolen cash, a Grammy award? This last tantalyzing detail is probably what secured the song as a timeless hit. (When asked what it was, Gentry was famously quoted as saying,"I don't know.")

There's a lot we don't know: if the family is black or white (unlikely they are black, because they seem to own their own spread and don't give the impression of being impoverished), whether or not the girl is pregnant (?) or just mad about the boy. Or if she even loves him. His supposed gayness comes out of left field: some say the ie spelling of his name (inexplicably changed for the movie) indicates his sexual orientation, though the fact it was recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a masculine name with an unconventional spelling, obscures that (rather stupid) possibility. Billie Jean King was yet to rise to ascendency, but Billie Joe, Betty Joe and Bobbie Joe were already fixtures on Petticoat Junction.The fact Gentry and one of the Bradley daughters have the same first name seems tremendously significant. (Just a coincidence? You decide.)

The song touches on various raw nerves of '60s pop culture: the angst and disaffection of youth (then called the "generation gap"), racial tension, poverty, social status, forbidden sexuality, and lyrics that you had to listen to over and over again and "figure out" (unlike Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I've Got Love in my Tummy and My Baby Does the Hanky Panky). Of course I looked for the seven-minute version with all those extra verses, and turned up only one image of a sheet of paper, a rough draft which may or may not be bona fide. Lots of old threads on message boards from 2007 ask the same questions and come up with all sorts of possibilities. Bobbie Gentry was smart not to answer them. Personally, I always thought Mama was trying to fix the girl up with that "that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor" - did she know more about her daughter's infatuation than she was letting on? Was she trying to get her mind off the whole sordid mess? At any rate, they've invited him for dinner, no doubt so they can throw pleasantries at each other with only passing reference to that unrepentent sinner, Billie Joe.

And that's all I have to say about it for this moment, but the more I listen to that lyric, the more I study it, the better it gets. You see, it shouldn't work - the lines have too many syllables - it's melodramatic and even depressing.  But as with Dionne Warwick's  Do You Know the Way to San Jose (which drew unprecedented numbers of people to the city, in spite of the fact that the song portrays it as a sinkhole of failed dreams), people thronged to Tallahatchie Bridge in the strangely-named town of Money, Mississippi. It was only a 20-foot drop, and I'm not at all sure that's enough to kill a person. But the bridge collapsed in 1972, an eerie thing. It had rotted away, obviously, or merely bucked under the weight of pop-culture legend.


Money Bridge Collapses, Greenwood Commonwealth, 06/20/1972

MONEY – The Tallahatchie River Bridge here collapsed between 11:30 and midnight Monday and presumably joined Billy Joe MacAllister in the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie.

Leflore County Deputy Sheriff Ricky Banks said he received a call from Sheriff Rufus Freeman about 12:15 a.m. today telling him the bridge had collapsed.

Leflore County Second District Supervisor Ray Tribble had called Sheriff Freeman earlier when two boys who had been fishing discovered the bridge had collapsed.

The two boys reportedly had gone upstream to fish and upon returning to Money found they couldn’t get over the collapsed span in the Tallahatchie River.

Tribble and his county road foreman Homer Hawkins then blocked the bridge off at the approaches on each side to prevent anyone from driving into the river.”

[Caption under photos]  BRIDGE OUT AT MONEY – The middle section of the Tallahatchie river bridge at Money tilted towards its upstream side as it collapsed Monday night. The steel suspension bridge was built in 1927. Staff Photos by Steve Bailey.

(Post-script. This now strikes me as a total crock. I mean  - look at the names! Sherriff Rufus Freeman is straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard. Ray Tribble - ? What can I say? Then we get to Homer Hawkins, and we KNOW we are in the territory of satire.)

Biographical tidbit about B. G. :

Of Portuguese descent, Gentry was born Roberta Streeter in Chickasaw County, MS, on July 27, 1944; her parents divorced shortly after her birth and she was raised in poverty on her grandparents' farm. After her grandmother traded one of the family's milk cows for a neighbor's piano, seven-year-old Bobbie composed her first song, "My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog," years later self-deprecatingly reprised in her nightclub act; at 13, she moved to Arcadia, CA, to live with her mother, soon beginning her performing career in local country clubs. The 1952 film Ruby Gentry lent the singer her stage surname.

POST-THOUGHTS: This post may have quite a few add-ons, despite the deceptively simple subject matter. I wrote earlier that the girl in the song sits there looking ghostly with shock. But how do we know how she looks? There is no mention at all of how she feels or reacts until the FOURTH verse, and even then, all we know is that she has no appetite. Her mother chides her for it, not so much because her child isn't eating but because all her cooking efforts are going to waste. And that is all we know about her reaction. There is no mention of grief. There is no mention of tears. Nothing! Just a mother getting on her kid's case for wasting food. It's shocking, when you really look at it, because all the rest of it, the assumption of a grief-stricken girl listening to the adults expressing their callous indifference to a tragedy, is imagined, inferred. It's what we don't know about her and about her relationship with Billie Joe that makes the song so compelling.

So how do we even know she loved him?

It's everything that is going on around the subject. Of course the adults aren't as indifferent as they may appear. They're keeping the subject at a distance because it's so horrific. When her brother starts to reminisce about Billie Joe and the playful, if rather disgusting incident at the Carrell County picture show, it's obvious the girl knew him, and her parents knew that she knew him.

Another layer? The stigma of suicide: "well, he done it to himself, didn't he?" is the unspoken subtext as they stuff themselves with cornbread and black-eyed peas. He should've acted like a man, faced up to his troubles, whatever they were.

The end of the song is so heartbreaking that I haven't even touched on it. It's the most masterful verse because of its Southern Gothic melancholy, worthy of passage in a  Tennessee Williams play. By the end of it, the girl is completely alone, idly tossing flowers over the side of that fatal bridge. Ironically, the last verse somehow echoes the terseness of her parents in its lack of emotion. She is simply stating the facts. There is just enough story here for us to make up the rest, projecting our own deepest griefs and yearnings, proving once again that a real story reads you.

AND THIS IS THE LAST THING I WILL SAY. (Promise!) I found out in all my meanderings through the song and the history of the bridge that Money, Mississippi is where Emmett Till was brutally murdered, inspiring Bob Dylan to write one of his fieriest songs when he was only 20 years old. I can't quote it here because it's a subject unto itself. But Money, Mississippi strikes me as a bubbling, seething cauldron, a place where ignorance and evil ruled, and perhaps still rule. I would like to think we are making progress, that all the hard work of the '60s paid off. But these days, as we slouch towards Bethlehem or slide towards that other place, I have so many doubts that I wonder if we're going to make it at all.