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Southern Gothic, Ode to Billie Joe, and Red Oak Road

My grandma Annie rose every morning before daybreak to bake biscuits or cornbread that she put in her iron skillet for my grandpa Henry and their nine kids. for breakfast. There was a big wood-burning stove in the corner of her kitchen. In the summer, the heat from the stove was so unbearably hot that even having the windows open and the cross breeze blowing through still didn't help. But Lord did she and my aunts appreciate that stove on those cold bitter mornings when their feet first touched the floor.

Often there were cracklins or salt meat/bacon from the pigs available so she would fry that up as well. Grandpa Henry raised and slaughtered pigs and would cure the fats for the winter months. The excess grease drippings were drizzled into the can that she kept on top of the stove. It made great seasoning for the bread and other vegetables she would cook. Sweet potatoes were available almost all year round being they were harvested in the beginning of winter.

In the middle of the room was a large round table where that family sat for meals. Next to the back door were shelves lined with jars filled with strawberry and blackberry preserves and vegetables like corn, tomatoes, and pickles harvested from the garden canned and pickled by my grandmother and my four aunts.

The kids helped in “the fields” or the very large garden. It was extremely hard work. The sun was hot and unbearable. And as we know, on its best days, Louisiana is always humid. If it rained in the early or late afternoon, steam rose from the soil and it felt like you were boiling alive. Everyone helped plant, hoe, and gather vegetables. The girls did household chores while helping raise their younger siblings. There were potatoes to dig, corn to harvest, cucumbers and tomatoes to pick, and peas and beans to snap or shell. Then there was the daily feedings and milking of cows, feeding chickens, gathering yard eggs, and feeding the hogs raised for Christmas slaughter. The boys took the brunt of the hard work, while the girls helped in the canning or preserves they put in the mason jars. The kids gathered wild blackberries and may-halls that Grandma Annie would preserve and sometimes even make blackberry dumplings or a cobbler for a Sunday treat. After she finished cooking supper in the morning, she stored it in her pie chest. Grandma Annie put together a lunch the kids brought to school that always included cornbread or a biscuit, some pork fat, or maybe a sweet potato she had baked. Sometimes there were soups or beans and on occasion, fried chicken. Work was hard for them all. Up before sun-up to get the chores finished. The Depression was going on, and money was tight, if any was to be had, but somehow they managed.

\My dad was one of five boys, and there were four girls.

As I began writing this blog, I wanted to talk about "Ode to Billie Joe"'s impact on my life and pop culture. As I began writing, I thought about the family that the lyrics describe, coming into the back door from the fields, sitting at the dinner table, and discussing how Bille Joe’s killed himself. No one at the table seems affected by Billie Joe’s suicide except the narrator. I thought about my dad, his eight brothers, sisters, and my grandparents sitting around the table talking about their day and the tragedies that must've happened around them and the highlight of their day must have been gathering at the dinner or supper table to talk about their day and what was going on in their neck of the woods. Their neck of the woods was Red Oak Road, a community made up of Severios and W heats. My dad, his siblings, and their children populated Red Oak Road. A couple of his siblings married and moved out of the neighborhood. Even my cousins settled close to their parents and raised their children there.

I remember when “new people” moved in which was hardly ever, gave everyone something to discuss for the coming months. Everything and everyone was news. The more you knew, the more popular you were.

One of the neighbors who lived up the road shot and killed her husband when he attempted to leave her. While awaiting trial for the shooting and being held at the LPP (Livingston Parish Prison), she began a torrid affair in jail with one of the guards, who was a huge man of color. She was the subject of many conversations over coffee shared between neighbors for years.

The town of Livingston was about two miles away. It had two general stores with gas pumps in front. On Sundays, my brother would pick me up in his gold Volkswagen, and we’d head up to one of the little country stores and buy me twenty-five cents worth of candy that would fill the small brown paper bag that I carried back to his beetle.

Daddy and his siblings didn’t get this kind of excitement because there was no such thing as being able to get candy when they were growing up.

"They Don't Make 'em like my Daddy Anymore."

My daddy quit school early and went to work helping his daddy and earn his keep. My dad was born with a cleft pallet. It marked him as an outsider throughout his life. I remember the first time I witnessed kids making fun of him because of his defect. I then understood him more even if I was only ten. O.D. Severio was the hardest-working man I’ve ever known. He came home every night covered in dirt from the logging work he did to work his vast gardens at my cousin's house. He drove his tractor or truck to Red and Edna Jean’s house, where my little cousin Dana would follow behind him, talking to him. In the fall, we gathered wood for the heater he loved to keep hot. I had no choice but to help. Boy, did the other kids enjoy watching me work the fields. It was miserable. My dad loved abundance and most of the vegetables we had to beg folks to take. Like his father, he smoked meats like rabbit and squirrel, which I think is better than chicken. My daddy retired at 70. The company he worked for gave him an 11x14 cardboard stock flyer with his name written in ink to thank him for working years for their company. He never knew what to do without working. He died soon after because his whole life had been about the value of hard work, and he was lost without it.

Grandma Annie

"Ode to Billie Joe"

Told in the first person, “Ode to Billie Joe is the story of a rural Mississippi family's reaction to the news of the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter (and narrator) is connected. The song received widespread attention, leaving its audience intrigued about what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobbie Gentry captures real life so well in her lyrics. When someone mentions Southern Gothic music, “Ode to Billie Joe” and Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe' is a 4-minute short story in music form with a beginning, middle, and end. Listeners have become more obsessed over what they threw off the bridge than what happened to Billie Joe. Bobbie used the baby as Hitchcock’s “McGuffin” technique.

“Ode to Billie Joe” has been written and discussed in countless blogs, news articles, and essays spread across the internet. It’s a southern gothic tale that's a modern literary masterpiece. Bobbie Gentry donated the lyrics that are now kept in the William Faulkner Archives at Oxford University next to the writings of Tennessee Williams and Faulkner himself.

“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a family member.”

(Bobbie Gentry from the radio promo record of the movie)

PRIDE and the film

“Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn't. Bobbie Gentry's famous song, on which "Ode to Billy Joe" is based, found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself. His death was seen as sad, long ago, and unnecessary, and the singer recalled it as a key event in an unhappy time. Gentry didn't need to explain because she evoked.”

Roger Ebert

The movie " Ode to Billy Joe" was released on June 4, 1976, and directed by Max Baer (Jethro/Jeffreene Beverly Hillbillies) with the screenplay by Herman Raucher and based on the song.

The plot is pretty mundane, with nothing happening except for a few shots of Billie Joe, portrayed by Robby Benson, shirtless, until it is revealed that after a drunken night at a brothel, he had sex with his boss, played by James Best (Roscoe P. Coltrane/Dukes of Hazzard).

Overcome by shame, Billie Joe jumps to his death in the Tallahatchie River, leaving poor Bobbie Sue alone. It's interesting what she sees as her only solution-rather than revealing she knew about Billie Joe's homosexual escapade, she falsely confesses to her family a pregnancy that exiles her from the family and Choctaw Ridge.


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