Five Writing Lessons from the “Ode to Billie Joe”

If you’ve never listened to “Ode to Billie Joe” sung by Bobby Gentry, give yourself that gift right now and click above. If you aren’t able to, or don’t wish to listen to it, here is a link to the lyrics. But listening to Bobby Gentry sing it with her whiskey-silk, Mississippi Delta voice is a treat you won’t forget.

Gentry wrote and recorded the song in 1967, and Billboard ranked it as the #3 song of the year. As young teens, my friends and I, like the rest of the country, animatedly speculated about what it was that the narrator and Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. A ring? A letter…a baby?!? Gentry doesn’t say what they threw off the bridge. Genius.

What they threw to me was a song rich in lessons on writing. Here are five lessons this song offers:

Readers are Smart

Never once in this song does Gentry explain to the reader how the narrator is feeling, that she had a relationship with Billie Joe, or that her father didn’t approve of him. Through their otherwise ordinary dinner conversation, the family reveals Billie Joe’s suicide and hints at a relationship between the narrator and Billie Joe. The reader can connect the dots. Especially when, in the midst of discussing Billie Joe’s death, Mama remarks, “that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor…” (read: potential husband for you, my pretty) “…said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh by the way…” In the last verse, the narrator says, a year later, she still visits the site and throws flowers off the bridge. Gentry follows the first rule of writing: Show don’t Tell. Let the reader take it from there.

Bobby Gentry on Tallahtatchie Bridge Life Magazine 1967
Bobby Gentry on the Tallahatchie Bridge
Life Magazine 1967

Set the Scene as Efficiently as Possible

In one brief line, Gentry offers the setting and tone: “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.” We immediately know where this story takes place, and we know it will be revealed gradually, like a sultry summer day in the south. There is no need for long exposition that explains how hot it is in Mississippi or the pace at which life generally moves. She also includes backstory in the next few lines, so we know the narrator and her brother are from a family subsisting on crops they grow themselves and are not wealthy since they are doing the labor. Gentry allows the reader to imagine their physical traits. Sometimes readers just like to do that.

Revelation through Dialogue

The juxtaposition within the dialogue is jarring. As Billie Joe’s suicide is revealed, Pa is passing the black-eyed peas, and brother is asking for an extra helping of apple pie. Mama’s comment, “child, what’s happened to your appetite? I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.” is the only hint that the narrator is reeling from this news while the other family members are more concerned with filling their stomachs.

Weave Backstory into Scenes

There is no info dump in this song. No long verse that talks about the narrator’s relationship with Billie Joe, how her parents and brother felt about him, or whether or not they knew each other very long. All of this backstory is seamlessly woven into the song. Her brother remembers a time when he and Billie Joe put a frog down her back when they were younger. Her father says Billie Joe “never had a lick of sense.” Her mother wants to fix her up with the preacher. And didn’t her brother see her with Billie Joe after church last Sunday night? Brilliant.

Tallahatchie Bridge
Tallahatchie Bridge

Always Leave ‘em Wanting More

The pièce de résistance, of course, is the mystery of what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Opening an occurrence like that to readers is like dumping chum into shark-infested waters. We can’t get enough (at least, as a reader, I can’t!) It could be fodder for discussion on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook. Heck, I’ve seen websites created to bounce around ideas about what they threw off the bridge. Websites! Created in the 21st century discussing a song from 1967. Pretty powerful stuff. Allowing an open-ended puzzle could be dangerous in a book though, as readers might be left unsatisfied. But what about letting it linger throughout the book not revealing it until the end…like a mystery, perhaps? LOL

 

This ballad has been a favorite of mine since I first heard it. I hope to follow Bobby Gentry’s lead, telling my stories with rich imagery and compelling dialogue that do the heavy lifting of the tale.

 

Is there a song that has inspired your writing? Are you thinking of a song that tells a story effectively like “Ode to Billie Joe?” I’d love to hear about it!

 

 

5 thoughts on “Five Writing Lessons from the “Ode to Billie Joe”

  1. This is really interesting, Betty. I remember the song, and as you quoted lines I remembered the music. So poignant. Great job with the writing lessons. Another song people wondered about for years is “You’re so vain” by Carly Simon. Who was that guy? LOL

    • Elizabeth Meyette says:

      Oh, I remember that puzzle, too, Diane. I think everyone suspected Warren Beatty. LOL I love songs that get people talking…now I sound like Bonnie Raitt #iwish

  2. Diane Flannery says:

    Wow, great post, Betty. I haven’t thought of that song in years. I recall when it came out that we all wondered at the ending. I can only aspire to write something so compelling that people are talking about it 50 years later.

    • Elizabeth Meyette says:

      I agree, Diane. I was blown away when I found websites dedicated to the mystery in this 1967 song. Of course you’re going to write something that compelling…you probably already have!

  3. Great post, Betty. An excellent lesson on how to convey a lot of information with just a few words. I, too, loved (and still love) that song. Thanks for the memory.

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