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.
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.
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!