Magic Radio, which plays golden oldies, went through a phase of playing Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe. Click to hear her sing it:
I’ve heard this song every now and then since I was a child. Both the words and the music are haunting and menacing. What is the mysterious somethin’ that Billie Joe and the narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Why did Billie Joe and not the narrator jump after it? What happened to the frog at the Carroll County Picture Show after the younger, and as yet un-suicidal Billy Joe put it down her back? Why have another piece of apple pie if it “don’t seem right”? Above all, why do the family eat biscuits with their black-eyed peas? They do, you know. See:
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 Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas
"Well, Billy 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 Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
I never thought to question the biscuit thing until recently. I’d vaguely imagined black-eyed peas with Jammy Dodgers, Custard Creams, or, at a pinch, Garibaldis. I thought it was a “sleepy, dusty Delta” thing, like hollerin’ and sayin’ y’all.
Recently it all fell into place. A colleague had been visiting her American cousin, and was surprised to be offered “biscuits in gravy”. It turns out that American biscuits aren’t biscuits at all, but more like savoury scones. I knew that Americans call biscuits “cookies”, but didn’t realise that they called anything “biscuits”, and when I heard “biscuits” in the song, automatically assumed they were English biscuits.
The biscuits business wasn’t my first bit of dozy thinking about song words. When I first heard that Eleanor Rigby was “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, I vaguely - numbly and vaguely - imagined some kind of mask. In a jar. By the door. Why? Who knows? It’s a song. A lot of songs don’t mean anything very much.
I wonder if there is a name for this kind of thing. A mondegreen is where you mishear and misunderstand the words of a song. But what if you hear the words but understand them in a stupid way?