by Jonathan Pinnock
Back in July of this year, I was asked to be guest editor for National Short Story Week, and as part of this I made some recommendations for short stories to read. But it struck me recently that I’d left out one of my favourites, one of the best examples of storytelling ever written. The really odd thing about this particular story is that it’s hidden in plain sight; 3 million people own a copy and countless more than that know it off by heart. Chances are you’ll know it too, especially if like me you’re a child of the 60s. I’m talking (as you’ve probably guessed from the title of this piece) about Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”. Here she is singing it on Top of the Pops back in 1968:
Pop songs very rarely go in for telling stories and when they do they tend to go for the ballad form. On occasion this can work very well but all too often the results can be laughable (try listening to some of the examples featured in Graham Norton’s “Tune with a Tale” feature on Saturday mornings on BBC radio 2, and you’ll get the picture). My theory is that these ballad-style songs fail because they break the first rule of fiction: show, don’t tell.
Which is where “Ode to Billie Joe” is in a class of its own. This is a story about an utterly catastrophic event in a young girl’s life (the suicide of her lover) but the protagonist never says a word about how she feels. However, we are left in absolutely no doubt by the end of the song that she is completely devastated, with no-one around who can help her.
If you look at how Gentry tells the story, it’s actually quite unusual. Ostensibly the action takes place over dinner, with the family sitting down to a meal together after a hard day in the fields. But the real story takes place in the background, in little snippets of casual conversation. When a story is told in this way, you feel a bit like the audience in a pantomime, shouting “Behind you!” It’s a technique that Susannah Rickards uses very well in a number of the stories in her collection “Hot Kitchen Snow”, and it’s extremely effective in getting the reader involved.
Then at just the right moment, Gentry drops in that single couplet with the Mama complaining about her not eating a single bite, and we begin to think that the story may have extra resonance for one of the people at the table. Sure enough, there’s an “oh, by the way” that confirms our worst fears.
At this point, you might think that there will be some kind of emotional denouément, but Gentry’s a lot more subtle than that. She finishes the scene there and then and moves on to the postscript. And that final verse is the killer in many ways, because it shows life moving on, for better or worse, but our protagonist still stuck in the same place, with no resolution. It’s also pretty clear (but again shown, not told) that she and her grieving mother are incapable of reaching out to each other.
Gentry’s other masterstroke is to leave not one but two mysteries in the story. What were they throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge and why on earth did Billie Joe go on to kill himself? She doesn’t say, but instead invites us in to make our own minds up, ratcheting up our emotional involvement with the story one more notch. There is, incidentally, a film based on the song that provides an explanation, proving not for the first time that Hollywood doesn’t always have the best handle on what makes a story work.
Bobbie Gentry’s subsequent career hasn’t been particularly distinguished, either. But then again, if I could write just one story a tenth as good at this one, I would die a happy man. It’s a three and a half minute course in creative writing.
by Jonathan Pinnock