I had never quite forgotten this amazing song, but sometimes it moves into the background for a spell, and then I'm reminded of it, and then it becomes a beautiful surprise all over again. Thanks to my old friend Paul Metsa for bringing it back to mind this time, via Facebook.
No movie ever had to be made for Ode to Billie Joe. The song was evocative enough on its own and needed no embellishment or speculation. What is wrong with some things retaining a sense of mystery?
Bobbie Gentry's cool detachment in performance is what makes this ballad the great piece it is. She's relating a tragic tale from a place of distance, and yet one can hear that the distance is feigned. She has become the young woman who is narrating the tale, and the pain is so close to the surface, yet she is somehow managing to tell her story with as much indifference as she can muster. You can imagine a sole listener having said, "Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts," prior to her launching into the story.
These are the bones of it. The narrator does achieve a certain distance, but in spite of that, one has the sense that Billie Joe's suicide could have happened mere hours before. The young woman seems still in a state of shock, even though she makes it clear at the end that, "A year has come and gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe."
Musically, is there any more eloquent a statement of a long fall than the descending chromatic scale that completes the song? You can almost see the flowers spiraling lazily in the air from the bridge to the muddy water below.
Do treat yourself to a peek at this video, from a live performance on The Smothers Brothers Show, way back in the day. I had never seen this until about a half hour ago. The visual makes it even more poignant.