Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe

First Hit #1: August 26, 1967

It’s strange what information one retains. I, for some reason, thought Bobbie Gentry was a male country singer – and I have thought this for years. I knew this song, I recognized the voice, and I recognized the name, but they never really connected for some ridiculous reason. You may now proceed to shake your heads in disapproval – even more than you did yesterday, when I wasn’t entirely kind to All You Need is Love.

But we’re not here to focus on my strange mental infirmities, I’m here to talk about hit singles, and here we have a somewhat grim story about suicide and the banalities of life. It’s like a middle of the road indie film, except four minutes long, so much better than any middle of the road indie film. It deals with a young woman who hears about the death of the young man in the title, in the middle of an otherwise boring day where people aren’t doing much of note. It’s kind of an odd structure, though it does perfectly capture the way people usually learn about a death – I once learned that a good friend had died the night before in an offhand comment made by somebody else, made in a way that’s entirely reminiscent of the song. But just being an accurate depiction of people learning about a suicide in a small town doesn’t make a hit, and I personally think there’s a very specific reason why this song caught on.

In effect, it’s the same reason people got hooked on Lost, or got swept up in Who Shot JR fever. This song gives you no answers, and once you listen to it you begin to wonder how everything in it is connected. How is the singer involved with Bobbie Joe, what did they throw off the bridge, why did Bobbie Joe also throw himself off the bridge? It’s a mystery, and more importantly, one with no answer that seems like it’s got to have an answer somewhere in the song. There is a lot of idle conversation happening, but given the events of the song maybe it’s important. Hell, maybe you have to buy the single, and there’s a hint in the packaging. There’s nothing more compelling than a question you don’t know the answer to, and this song presents loads of them. It’s a song where you want to know the trick, you want to know the key that makes all the events make sense. That, I suspect, is what made it a hit, a nation of people wondering if there was an answer to the questions posed in the song.

It’s not my favorite song in the world, but it is pretty compelling, and I’m glad it doesn’t give any answers. Like the outcry over Lost’s ending, I can’t imagine the answer being anything but a disappointment.

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