Previously on Great Story Songs of Yore: I honored some doozies.
Here are some more:
Ode to Billie Joe
What was Billie Joe throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And why did he kill himself again? These were some of the burning questions of the late 60s, along with “Is Tiny Tim a girl or a boy?” and “Are you experienced?” The protean story song, Bobbie Gentry’s atmospheric Southern gothic still sets the gold standard for how to tell a story in 5 verses.
It was the third of June, another sleepy dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay.
And then, the inciting incident:
Then she said, “I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today Billie Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Agents would love to get this clear of an idea what most submissions are about.
Little hints throughout as to who Billie Joe was and why:
Papa: “Billie Joe never had a lick of sense…”
Mama: “Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge…”
Papa: “I saw him at the sawmill yesterday up on Choctaw Ridge…”
But what Bobbie did best was to employ that old writing maxim; show-don’t-tell.
Mama says to me, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite? I been cooking all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
And then in the epilogue:
A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe…and me I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge and dropping ’em into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
A TV movie tried to drum up an explanation for the tragedy–Billie Joe had a gay slip-up! But it’s better not knowing and instead pondering Gentry’s subtle hints, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure in the key of F.
Okay, I’ll spill–this song made me cry when I was six. (What? Quit looking at me. He was gone the day the angels came…it was sad…shut up.) Honey’s premature death is as mysterious as Billie Joe McCallister’s. She was crying needlessly in the middle of the day. The angels came in the early spring. Cancer? Consumption? Who knows?
But now that I’m not six, I can’t help but notice some of the lyrics are what you’d call, well, bad.
I laughed at her and she got mad
The first day that she planted it, was just a twig
The first day that she planted it, it was just a twig wouldn’t fit the rhythm so they just skirted past that part and hoped listeners in the late sixties were too stoned to notice.
She wrecked the car and she was sad
And so afraid that I’d be mad
But what the heck
Though I pretended hard to be
Guess you could say she saw through me
And hugged my neck
Hugged just his neck? Not his shoulders? His back? Dude.
I am, I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
My guess is that Neil was really desperate to come up with something to rhyme with ‘there’ and he had already rejected ‘So I ate a pear,’ ‘Like Smokey The Bear,’ and ‘There were nits in my hair.’
I suspect that’s what happened to Honey songwriter Bobby Russel. I’m going to bestow upon him the first ever “Diamond Chair” award for extreme desperation in rhyming. Congrats, man.
The Night Chicago Died
Ever hear of an east side of Chicago prior to this song? How about a war between Al Capone and the Chicago police that ended in the hoodlum gang’s surrender or death? And the death of “about a hundred cops”? Me neither. But give the unjustly obscure Paper Lace songwriters a break: After all, they were British.
And they had a good sense of storytelling. First, a prologue:
My daddy was a cop, on the east side of Chicago, back in the USA, back in the bad old days.
After some lovely but persistently inaccurate scene-setting: “In the heat of a summer night, in the land of the dollar bill…” there are lots of action verbs. Shouting in the streets. The sound of running feet. Mama crying. Mama praying.
And then, high drama…
Then there was no sound at all, but the clock upon the wall
(drummer SFX: tick tock, tick tock…)
Then the door burst open wide, and my daddy stepped inside
And he kissed my mama’s face, and he brushed her tears away.
Daddy lives! Thereby making this a rare storysong with a happy ending.
I’ve barely scratched the schmaltzy surface of all the great story songs, so stay tuned for when I get all verklempt again.