Yesterday morning, for reasons unknown to me, “Ode to Billie Joe” started going through my head. I was ten years old when it was on the radio. As haunting and Gothic as “A Rose for Emily” or “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I don’t think any pop song has ever demanded as much in the way of negative capability from its listeners.
Google tells me that when asked exactly what was thrown off the bridge, Bobbie Gentry replied, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important. Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
And then there is the mystery of Bobbie Gentry herself–gorgeous, extravagantly talented, ultra-articulate, and dripping with Las Vegas glitz–who stepped out of the limelight in 1975, never to be heard from again.
For what it’s worth, my mother was certain it was a baby.