A great ballad can teach us about the power of what is unsaid in conveying the real story in any conversation. For writers, we can benefit from leaving information out as much as from telling the whole story. Here, I deconstruct the haunting classic, Ode to Billy Joe to show you how that works.
It’s not very fashionable but I love good ol’ country and western music – yeehaw! There are many reasons – the heartache, the emotion worn on the plaid sleeve, the humour plus toe tapping tunes, steel string guitars and that twanging honky tonk sound – but most of all, I love the stories that the best songs tell.
They are like short stories told in 3 minutes with a sing-alongable chorus.
Here’s what I mean. Take Billy Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.
Sung in a low key, undramatic tone, with a simple acoustic guitar and the occasional orchestral cascade to underscore the epic quality of this ordinary story, it evokes mystery, tragedy and horror within the mundane details of the ballad.
The narrator is a young girl from poor farming folk and life is hard – we know all this within the first few lines: a brilliant piece of scene setting. It’s dinner time and during the mundane talk at the table we learn that Billy Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchee bridge. It is simply mentioned in passing and the family carry on – “pass the biscuits please”, says Papa.
Each stanza ends with a mention of Billy Joe and the bridge in amongst the banal details of black eyed peas and the county show and church. And the narrator suddenly loses her appetite – Mama says, “”I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite”
What is the connection between the girl and Billy Joe?
Is she the same girl who is seen with Billy Joe some time earlier up on Choctow Ridge?
Time passes. Her father dies from a virus. Her mother “doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything”.
And the girl spends a lot of time now up on Choctow Ridge, throwing flowers into the river under the Tallahatchee bridge.
The mystery is never resolved, the questions never answered. And the ballad is the more evocative for it.
For writers and storytellers, the writing is a masterclass in economy and deadpan inference. What is not said is as powerful as what is said.
And for all of us, there is a lesson in the ballad about listening for the real story in any conversation – it may be lying in the silence or what is not fully spoken and in the body language and wordless actions and responses of the people around us.
You can watch Bobbie Gentry’s performance below or go over to Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billy Joe on the Youtube site