Friday, 24 January 2014

Bobbie Gentry, what you get when you fall in love, and the Tallahatchie Bridge

Bobbie Gentry is an American singer/songwriter, who achieved chart success in the late 1960s. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobbie_Gentry.

For a while she seemed to wear nothing but trouser suits, and indeed some may recall the zany Kenny Everett referring to her as 'Old Trouser Suits' on his BBC Radio 1 show at the time, although secretly I think he rather liked her style. Kenny who? Tut. Read about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenny_Everett.

Back to Bobbie Gentry. She is known now, if known at all, for two songs. One is from 1969, called I'll Never Fall In Love Again, which is all about the less romantic things that happen when you fall in love, a long list of pretty good reasons (sung to a catchy tune) why it just isn't worth it. And yet somehow you feel that she doesn't really mean it, and will fall desperately in love again in a single heartbeat. That said, I would say it's useful cautionary listening for a girl who will get a hopeless crush on a guy at the drop of a hat.

I have seen what victims of hopeless crushes look like. I well remember a scene at Newquay in Cornwall, at Fistral Beach. I was sitting with M--- in my parked car in May 2008 (the car was not Fiona: it would have been the Honda CR-V that came before) having a cup of tea from a flask, and something to nibble. Up from the sand came two figures in wet suits, quite close to us. One was a tall, muscular young man in his late twenties, every inch the Surfing Instructor. He wasn't swaggering. He was just a very fit and very handsome person. But he also knew that he was highly attractive to the girls. The other was a young lady who was also attractive in her way, but unfortunately for her, she was fat, and the very tight wet suit did not do her any favours. And yet the way she looked at the Instructor made it abundantly clear that she fancied him to bits, did not want the lesson to end, and desperately wanted him to ask her what she might be doing that evening.

M--- and I watched fascinated. You perfectly appreciated the body language. She was finding him totally irresistible, and could hardly hold back from flinging herself at him. Her face wore a yearning look. He, on the other hand, was the model of professional indifference. He must have been fully aware that this girl was besotted, and his for the asking; but he didn't want her, and wasn't going to compromise himself in any way.

As they parted, she was the very image of deflated dejection. There had been no physical contact, not even a handshake. He'd been careful to keep her strictly at arm's length. Her signals ignored and rebuffed, and no doubt feeling flabby and unattractive, she walked heartbroken to her car, still dripping seawater. Our hearts bled for her.

But better that, perhaps, than being cruelly taken advantage of, and then discarded. Pride matters.

The other song that Bobbie Gentry penned and sung was the earlier Ode To Billie Joe of 1967. I personally rate this as one of the best songs of all time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe. Here are the lyrics:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right"
"I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge"
"And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

It paints a fascinating picture of a local suicide being casually discussed over the lunchtime meal, but without special concern, and seems to say much about attitudes in rural communities, where everybody knows each other, but that doesn't mean they care. It seems that nobody round the table has guessed that their daughter and Billie Joe have been romantically associated. I've always taken the fairly obvious (but not necessarily correct) view that in a moment of passion Billie Joe got her pregnant, and after a secret abortion they tenderly threw the little corpse off the bridge and into the muddy water of the river. But then Billie Joe couldn't stand the strain of keeping such a thing secret forever, or had already been found out, and so took his life. It looks thankfully as if the nice young preacher with very sharp eyes made no headway with the daughter: ironically, it must have been the death of her father, and her mother's loss of interest in life, that let her avoid being married off to the preacher. I wonder who was now doing the heavy farm work?

There really is a Tallahatchie Bridge. More than one, of course, but the particular river crossing associated with the song is at Money, Mississippi: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallahatchie_River. It burned down in 1972, and was replaced. Personally, I don't think that it's really the right bridge, because it's set in flat countryside, and well away from any Choctaw Ridge. However, it was the scene in 1955 of a real-life dead body being cast into the waters. I'm thinking that maybe there was a veiled allusion in the song to that incident, bearing in mind that when the song came out in 1967 the famous black rights leader Martin Luther King was still alive, and the question of freedoms and life chances for black people was very much in contention. The body thrown from the bridge in 1955 was that of a fourteen year old boy who did something very ordinary but was savagely killed for it. If you have the stomach, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till for the story.

It isn't ghoulish to view Money on Google Earth, nor to inspect the place in Street View on Google Maps. It will strike you as very rural indeed, very workaday, very dusty, very far removed from a bright and busy city street.

In such places small events loom large, and misbehaviours can be chewed over till they seem like enormous crimes. The characters and events in Ode to Billy Joe are fictional, but one can imagine the consequences of stepping even slightly out of line in the real-life setting. The need to keep voices low; the need to do all things with circumspection; and the walls that must develop between people in on the secret and those not.

1 comment:

  1. Bloomin' Nora Lucy, this post is long.............I haven't the time to read it all. I remember the Tallahatchie bridge song though

    Shirley Anne x

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