In the good ode days

Bil­lie Joe McAl­lis­ter jumped 50 years ago

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Ted Tal­ley Ted Tal­ley is a res­i­dent of Ben­tonville who has lived in the Ozarks more than two decades. His email is theob­tal­ley@aol.com.

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.

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