When I was 12 years old, I started buying 45 rpm records.
The record store that sold them was in the next town over, and they had just about everything. (And I mean everything, including an owner, believe it or not, who was a near-dead ringer for the late Freddy Mercury. More importantly, though, and in terms of pure musical acumen, the man simply knew it all.)
All you had to do was hum a few bars of any piece of music you wanted, and if it sounded anywhere close to the actual track, he would know it instantly. Long before the advent of the Internet, that guy was my musical encyclopedia.
As a lot of you surely know (and for those of you who may not go back quite that far), the music of yore included everything from LPs (short for “long play,” full-sized records, played at 33 1/3 rpm), to, as above, 45s (basically small discs, featuring sides A & B, with the artist’s hit on one side, and usually a throwaway B track that no one had really ever heard of on the other), cassettes, and way, way back, 8-track tapes. (If you can find one of those around that’s in reasonably good condition, just find an 8-track player to go with it; you could be in line for a guest spot on Pawn Stars.)
Anyway, back when I was in junior high, I started to build up that collection of 45s, made up largely of stuff that I heard on the radio – especially Top 40 songs that I would hear on weekend countdown shows. Every Sunday morning, I would tune in my radio to hear the late, great Casey Kasem announce the weekly results.
I could sit there for hours and just listen. The more I honed my musical education, the more I would identify with certain songs. Yet, the one that ultimately became most impactful, offered a snapshot of a life that couldn’t have been more different than my own.
It debuted all the way back in 1967, at the time, kicking the likes of household names such as the Beatles, the Doors, and Aretha Franklin, right off the top of the charts. And nearly a decade after its debut, it regained – and in some ways even eclipsed – its original level of popularity.
Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” was the song that got that second chance, and it was one of the first records I ever purchased with my own money. (You don’t think about this stuff when you’re a kid, but a TV movie, based on the song, was aired in 1976. It spearheaded an all-out marketing effort, leading to the song’s eventual re-release.)
It’s a simple song, really. Save a few stray hits on what I’m guessing was/is a Moog synthesizer (plus some violin or even viola, maybe) , it’s basically just the aforementioned Ms. Gentry and her folk guitar, singing about life in the rural south and the death of a boy she once knew named Billie Joe Mcallister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Greenwood, Mississippi.
It seems that Gentry (born Bobbie Lee Gentry, 1942) spent the early years of her life in Chickasaw County, MS, eventually moving away to an area known as the Mississippi Delta. Her family’s home there was located between two rivers, the Yazoo and the Tallahatchie.
While the song itself may have been simple in its composition, by contrast, the arc of the story it chronicled covered a lot: From the mention of each of her family members (arguably, with Gentry herself, serving as the story’s narrator) to others in her small rural community (including a young pastor who claims that he has seen the narrator, alongside Billie Joe, throwing something off the bridge, into the river below) to the untimely death of her father and finally to her affection for – and attraction to – the mysterious Billie Joe, who ultimately takes his own life.
The actual Tallahatchie bridge (originally made of wood) was burned down by vandals, eventually collapsing in June 1972. A few years later, a temporary one was built for the aforementioned TV movie, but that bridge was torn down in 1987.
Today, a modernized version, reinforced by steel girders, stands in the original spot.
When I first became aware of the song, even though I was a suburban kid from the Northeast, the backdrop of its story – so vastly different in both geography and general lifestyle from my own experience – still made sense to me. Somehow, I just identified with the story and those characters, not only with the fallen Billie Joe and the secrets that led to his eventual end (none of which are really ever made clear in the song, with the TV movie offering an explanation that Gentry may or may not have intended), but also with the narrator who finds the courage to share what Billie Joe meant to her.
And although Gentry herself insisted that the story within the song was fictional, to my then 12-year-old self, it was real. And even now, several decades after I first heard it, the story of Billie Joe Mcallister has become a metaphor, sort of a remembrance of all those people from my past, with whom, for whatever reason, I have fallen out of touch.
If you don’t know the story of the song, try giving it a listen. And when you do, take a minute out to think about those who may occasionally occupy your thoughts; yeah, try picturing those people and imagine what each of them might be doing at this very moment.
Who knows? Maybe, you even have your own “Billie Joe,” or some such equivalent. And if there is such a person – or people – have you ever thought about what you would you do if you saw him/her again? What would you say? And what would it take to find the courage to tell that person how much they have been missed?
If you close your eyes, you may just be able to see that famed bridge in the Mississippi Delta, a young Billie Joe Mcallister just sitting there atop it, waiting. Perhaps this time, though, fueled by the warm memories of your past and the people in it, he’ll take that second chance to heart, finding his way to the next day’s sun.