Bobby Gentry spoke very little about her song ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ but one description of note by her was that the song was a study in unconscious cruelty. The term ‘unconscious cruelty’ was also used by 1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Albert Schweitzer with reference to the way that humans treat animals but the question here is, what did Bobby Gentry mean by unconscious cruelty in ‘Ode to Billy Joe’?
The first part of the song which sets the tone is iconic. The 3rd of June on a farm in the Mississippi Delta region. The sultry singer chopping cotton with her brother on hay duty. Decent rural southern folk going about their daily business. All quaint and not too much unconscious cruelty going on here although any of us who have done farm work may disagree. In any event when dinner time arrives they return to their house for some food where their mother greets them with a holler about remembering to wipe their feet. Their mother then tells them about news she received that morning from Choctaw Ridge that local man Billy Joe MacAllister had died by jumping from the Tallahatchie bridge. From here the song transforms into a mental minefield.
As the song develops there is inevitable speculation on the part of the listener as to why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge. There is information about his to be gleaned in the various emphases that Bobby Gentry places on different lyrics. Likewise her demeanour when performing on stage. Her pace and cadence are telling also as are the chord changes and the way that she drags out the last word of many of the lines. But we are still left wondering.
The singer and Billy Joe appeared to have been in a relationship but was this a secret relationship? Could a relationship be kept secret in a small place like that? The indifference towards the singer at the dinner table would suggest that it might have been a secret relationship but Bobby Gentry’s description of the song as ‘unconscious cruelty’ might suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the family were indeed aware but did not approve of the singer being in a relationship with Billy Joe. The father’s complete lack of compassion for Billy Joe and the mother’s mention of the nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropping by that day and coming for dinner on Sunday could be interpreted as a hint to the singer to forget about her erroneous former relationship with Billy Joe and instead concentrate on trying to form a relationship with someone more socially mobile and more acceptable to the family, such as the good Brother Taylor, who at the time would have been a good catch being educated and financially stable in a region that experienced a lot of financial poverty. The fact that the preacher had told the singer’s mother that he thought he saw the singer with Billy Joe on the bridge would suggest that the singer had been discussed by the protagonists during the conversation in which he was invited for dinner.
So yes, speculation abounds as to what happened on Choctaw Ridge between the singer and Billy Joe and whether it was related to Billy Joe jumping off the bridge and if not, why did Billy Joe do what he did? This speculation, however, is a distraction, as, by the way, is the identity of an item that the singer and Billy Joe were throwing into the water as reported by the Preacher to the singer’s mother. As they were both or jointly throwing something into the river and as this could be observed at a distance by the preacher who couldn’t quite make out what it was, it would suggest that the something in question was relatively substantial. A deceased baby has been assumed and perhaps this assumption might be accurate, but I wonder about the possibility that something else might have been dispensed with.
Something as innocuous perhaps as a bunch of flowers as a present for the singer that might have been wrapped and therefore difficult for the preacher to identify from a distance. I suggest this as nothing but further speculation on the weak grounds that towards the end of the song the singer mentions that she spends a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw ridge and throwing them into the water off the Tallahatchie bridge so perhaps there is an emotional significance to the act of throwing flowers into the water. Perhaps it is cathartic. Perhaps the flowers are her gifts to her beloved Billy Joe, or her possibly deceased child, or both, or perhaps the act of dropping flowers into the water is a technique for managing an emotion such as, perhaps, guilt experienced by her for something she may have said or did on the bridge. It is unlikely although of course possible that they were jointly throwing a small object off the bridge such as, for example, an engagement ring.
In any event the reason for Billy Joe jumping off the Tallahatchie bridge or the identity of the item that was thrown from the bridge are not the real themes of this song. The real themes of the song, I suggest, are the casual attitude towards suicide that is demonstrated in it and the unsupportive way that the parents ignore or undermine their daughter’s shock and grief at the dinner table. Their devious, cynical behaviour towards their daughter comes across as cruelty and passive aggression at their worst.
The indifferent manner in which suicide is discussed over dinner is an eye-opener. Particularly the suicide of someone who was well known to the family for so many years and who was a childhood friend of the singer and her brothers as evidenced by the story of the frog that was put down the singer’s back by her brother, by someone called Tom, and by Billy Joe while at the picture show in Carroll County. In this regard the father’s response is particularly striking. “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense” he announced, followed immediately by something as nonchalant as “pass the biscuits please” and then a work-related comment about ploughing the final five acres of the lower forty.
From a psychological perspective there are several cognitive biases evident in the father’s response.
Firstly, there is what is called a confirmation bias which is the tendency to focus on information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. According to the father “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense” and the act of jumping off the bridge confirmed, to the father, that his long-held opinion was correct. The father’s bias also demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of mental health and the complexity of suicide.
He also demonstrated what is called an empathy gap. This is a tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others and in this instance, he appeared to completely underestimate the strength of feelings of his children, one of whom appeared to have been in a (possibly forbidden) relationship with Billy Joe. Or maybe he didn’t underestimate the strength of his children’s feelings, particularly his daughter’s, and maybe this is the unconscious cruelty that Bobby Gentry referred to. The mother does not escape this charge either by the way. Her casual and potentially insincere comment about her daughter’s lost appetite doesn’t reflect well in the circumstances.
Hindsight bias was evident in the father’s comment also. Hindsight bias is akin to an ‘I told you so’ attitude. It is the tendency to see events that have happened in the past as being predictable but perhaps the two most pernicious cognitive biases on show by the father are what are called the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Puritanical Bias.
Fundamental Attribution Error, also known as Actor Observer Bias, is the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviours to overemphasise the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation and general environment. The father did not give any weight to the circumstances that Billy Joe found himself in that contributed to his suicide. Instead, he basically blamed the victim and/or perceived the victim as weak. This is lazy thinking and a huge mistake to make when it comes to representing people who so unfortunately take their lives.
Relatedly, Puritanical Bias refers to the tendency to attribute the cause of an undesirable outcome or wrongdoing by an individual to a moral deficiency or lack of self-control on the part of the person rather than taking into account the impact of broader societal factors. Again, putting the blame entirely on the individual. Again, a gross misunderstanding of the complexity of suicide but one that I suggest regrettably persists in some quarters, even if not articulated.
So yes, I think I can see how unconscious cruelty was at play in this iconic masterpiece and I think I can see what Bobby Gentry might have meant by describing the song as a study in unconscious cruelty but at the same time while humbly acknowledging that my interpretations might be inaccurate, I find myself wondering whether at least some of the cruelty may have been conscious, and deliberate.
Finally, as we are slowly emerging from a global pandemic it is so eerie to hear in the lyrics of a song that is 54 years old that ‘there was a virus going ’round; Papa caught it, and he died last spring.’ May ‘Papa’ rest in peace but RIP also to Billy Joe and to all whose lives have been cut short by suicide.
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