Suicide Song

Over the summer, I discovered the 1967 hit song ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ by Bobbie Gentry.

It won a Grammy for Gentry, one of the first female country singers to write her own material.

What is fascinating about this song is that it’s basically about a mother casually announcing at dinner that a friend of the family, Billie Joe McAllister, has killed himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The daughter describes the complete non-reaction to this news around the dining table. People ‘pass around the black-eyed peas’ and talk about how his death is a ‘shame’. Through acutely observed descriptions of what people do and say, Gentry shows people struggling to come to terms with the death.

No clichéd ringing of hands and melodramatic laments for the nearly departed here. This is a thoroughly modern and brilliant depiction of how we often receive such news.

The song ends with the daughter standing on the very same bridge Billie Joe threw himself from dropping flowers into the water below, while the strings that back this deceptively simple ditty, eerily mimic their fall.

It just got me thinking if anyone was to try and make a song like that to day, with the aim of getting it to sell 3 million copies worldwide as Gentry’s song did, what chance would they stand?


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