Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry is a song I go back to at times and wind up rediscovering what an amazing song it is all around, from the sad, simple melody, Gentry's smoky , country embossed vocal and the subtly insinuating string arrangement that actually manages to enhance the lyric's feeling of a small town's buried secrets.
While much has been made trying to decipher a lot of sophomore surrealism in the early years of lyrics-as-poetry , focusing on songs and albums that honestly haven't aged well over the decades, Gentry's stanzas are simple but not dumb, being convincingly idiomatic, a first person narration with a encroaching oddness worthy of Flannery O'Conner or Carson McCullers. Hemingway would have been impressed with the deceptive ease of the writing; there is no poetic language to adorn this tale, no lead-footed adverbs, no creaky stabs at philosophical sophistication. It's a one act play, nearly, in the guise of a single narrator's voice which recollects the gossipy tone, the snotty opinions on the behavior and character of others, the sudden intrusions of gestures or abrupt interruptions . "Ode to Billy Joe" has an intense air of the things, the facts, the truth of things not said . Someone in this room, around this table is doubtlessly dying to utter what will not be named , but the silence is maintained, the pact is kept. What is unsaid seems to suck the life out of the room, reducing family talk to empty, distracted banter.
It's a wonderful telling of a world we recognize, it has the quality of an intriguing conversation or snippy gossip we might lean closer to overhear. The setting of a family meal as the present tense location and the telling details--pass the black eyed peas, wipe your feet--and the fragmented chatter about Billie Jo McAllister which subtly brings you back in time to some blurrily recollected event--have a cinematic effect.There is a tragedy in this narrative that begs to be revealed, but Gentry, like the discussants in the song, isn't offering the big reveal. What works for the alluring mystery is that perhaps the song's narrator does not herself know anymore than anyone else around the or in the community. She tells what she knows in simple, effective language Hemingway would have admired, perhaps withholding information, keeping secrets, compelled by various small town mores to keep her mouth closed. This element of does-she-or-doesn't-she know something makes this song even more confounding.