Ode to Billie Joe
by Andrea Elizabeth
The 70’s were a weird time. It was when America started reflecting instead of progressing. A brief pause between the disillusioning but progressing 60’s and the computer driven renewed progress of the 80’s. Today I read about the singer, Bobbie Gentry, who also wrote “Ode to Billie Joe”. I saw parts of the movie when it came to TV in the 70’s because I had a crush on Robby Benson, the soulful eyed teen throb. See The Chosen and Ice Castles. I thought it was based on an older Ode. What I remember of it is the teen couple sadly walking down a red dirt road toward the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi.
Bobbie Gentry grew up in the 40’s and 50’s before progress caught on in the southern hinterland, similar to how Dollie Parton grew up. As children they knew about scraping a living off the land like their grandparents did. It was stories like theirs and of their predecessors that were so popular in the 70’s like Little House on the Prairie, HeeHaw and The Waltons. Modernism was symbolized by the American Indian commercial where he stands over dumped trash with a tear rolling down his chiseled face.
The weird part is that Robby Benson, also born in Dallas, and I didn’t live that way. I immersed myself in these and horse stories, some western horse stories, some mid century farm stories. I completely identified with my Alamo Texan and southern back country roots, although both my parents lived in the city. My mother’s parents escaped what Bobbie Gentry wrote about. My father’s mother’s parents had other people doing the hard part, and his father’s parents were from Germany and worked in the city when they got here. I don’t know what they did over there.
What this does for you is make you city dependent, but old country nostalgic. Nostalgia is usually a longing for how you used to live, but we never lived that way. I don’t count my nostalgia as false though, even if I know a glorified, screened version of it. Reproductions still hearken back, but what you’re left with is the aesthetics. So when you visit a farm or other preferred back country, it’s like visiting a museum. You appreciate the beauty and quietness as an alien. They didn’t view their lives as tourist attractions. They were scraping a living. I suppose The Last Picture Show is a less glorified version. Peyton Place also sought to pop the myth. I bet the truth is somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I think 70’s reflection swallowers like me never really felt at home where we were. Home is where the heart is and so my home is watching someone else pretend to live in it. They say write about what you know, and so my best option is to write about liking the flavor of Bobbie Gentry’s and Dollie Parton’s however real versions. And since I have their people’s blood in me, maybe some of my sense of home is real too.