In the good ode days
Billie Joe McAllister jumped 50 years ago
It was not the third of June, nor was it another sleepy, dusty, Mississippi Delta day. Instead, it was another muggy, southeast Louisiana July evening when my buddies and I first heard Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” 50 years ago this summer.
We were an atypical foursome. The twins, Susan and Elizabeth, had been my classmates since second grade. Our high school senior year was nearing. The fourth was Clyde. A year older, he was in the summer of finding himself after graduation, laboring at the concrete plant that had completed the world’s longest bridge across Lake Pontchartrain 11 summers earlier.
Clyde and I dated neither of the twins. Our arrangement raised eyebrows from outside our immediate circle of friends and family, and it resulted in occasional quadruple-dating as romantic interests were invited in. We were quaint, no-intimacy friends with benefits.
With top down, we sat in my red, 1964 Falcon convertible parked near the summer league baseball field in our hometown, Covington, La. As usual, the girls were in the back seat as Clyde and I sat up front. He slumped down, a pack of Marlboros folded into his T-shirt sleeve James Dean-style. We teens could have been Larry McMurtry screenplay actors. The blonde twins were as lovely as Cybill Shepherd while Clyde in steel toe lace-ups and I in cowboy boots from my father’s feed store were Beau Bridges and Timothy Bottoms. But Covington was not Archer City, Texas; Our picture show was not closing.
The Falcon’s AM radio blasted tunes from a New Orleans top-40 station. In the 1960s few dashboards included FM options. Back then FM stations aired sleep-inducing Mantovani orchestra instrumentals anyway. Unlike today, AM radio was the domain of youth.
The sun set. The radio crackled to silence. This was normal as stations reduced power per federal regulations, while select ones continued at full wattage. Then as now, that select New Orleans broadcaster was WWL, our parents’ boring favorite airing big-band dance music from the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room.
Clyde pushed a pre-set for our nighttime station, Little Rock’s KAAY, “The Mighty 1090,” reaching teens throughout the entire Mississippi River Valley. The evening’s first song was new. An acoustic guitar began, joined by a unique, woody bass line. Decades later I learned that sound was a cello’s plucked strings recorded by a close-in microphone, intensifying the ponderous pizzicato.
Gentry sang a tale of rural commonplace. We could relate, though no cotton grew nearby. Her husky voice, backed by violins and a second, bowed cello, swayed like long leaf pines towering over my open car. The commonplace segued to dark enigma, ending with tossed flowers and violins spiraling downward to Tallahatchie River waters. We could imagine petals tossed into our own Bogue Falaya River.
Our puzzled faces were silent, yet spoke: “What have we just heard?” Whatever it was, it was good. Millions agreed. On Aug. 26, 1967, “Ode” knocked the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” off the top Billboard chart spot. Gentry had cleared the way for future storytelling composer-singers Don McLean, Jim Croce and Harry Chapin.
In our teenage naiveté we sensed, but couldn’t fully grasp, that the Tallahatchie Bridge connected old Southern Gothic of Tennessee Williams to the New South of Walker Percy, our hometown author of national repute. Gentry’s protagonist stood on a four-minute-fifteenseconds-long span between the two. Neither Williams’ delusional Blanche Dubois nor Percy’s neurotic Kate Cutrer, the farm girl, was approachable and one of us.
Further, Billie Joe’s suicide was similar to skeletons hanging in any good Southern family’s closet: An uncle’s affair with our high school English teacher, a cousin murdered at the turpentine plant.
As the song ended, we realized we were hungry. Would it be burgers and malts at Dairy King or barbecue at “Pigs?” My little Ford sped across the Bogue Falaya Bridge to Mr. Des Ormeaux’s pork sandwiches and Cokes, spiked in the parking lot with bourbon from Clyde’s flask.
It was our quartet’s last summer. The twins and I graduated the next spring and they were off to LSU in Baton Rouge. I worked construction in the Gulf, and then headed to Baylor in Waco. Clyde eventually enlisted in the Army.
Ironically if I hear “Ode to Billie Joe” today, it would be on Bella Vista’s American songbook FM station, the domain of baby-boomers. Those haunting, plucked cello strings transport me to 1967: The convertible top is lowered and music floats over Arkansas cotton fields to four kids in the Louisiana coastal pines.