Tag Archives: Virus

Bloody Ramble: from Typos to Chaplin

I am not a hematologist. Nor an immunologist or a virologist. Just an aspiring amateur writer who has recognized that typos fall into two dominant categories. Regular readers have no doubt spotted more than a few.

The first kind of typo comes from stream of consciousness – such as just getting the initial thoughts and sentences tapped in.  Misspellings, poor grammar, dreary or ambiguous word choice, double words, lazy punctuation.  The long list continues: verb/noun mismatch; change of tense within a paragraph; chronological inconsistencies; using “their” or “your” for “they’re” and “you’re” …

These are all forgivable, and relatively painless. Many make it to draft status, when well over 90% can be cleaned up by a few proofreading passes.

It’s the second kind of typo that is really painful.  These result from late edits.  The eleventh-hour flash of brilliance that results in a “catastrophic improvement.”  At the final moment, with the cake fully iced, the product is ready for a la mode, and full reader enjoyment! 

But no! Those last flourishes require just as much proof reading as the original drafts.  Yet, it is so easy to skip. I’ve done it many times. Slow learner.

To my readers: Thank you.  Many of you have gently suggested improvements and corrections to my typos and “facts.”  The rest of you have kindly ignored them; or, perhaps in your brilliance, merely read what I intended, not what I wrote.  Exhibit A: My last essay enfolded references to (a) a famous bathroom fixture company, (b) its founder, (c) the label for a common convenience, and (d) my regular tapestry of  history, factoids, and observations.  During some post-published proof-reading I found a few major hiccups. It’s better now, but only after some help and a couple of paragraph re-writes.
 

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Not only are there two kinds of typo; there are two kinds of Type-O.  Positive and negative.  We’re talking blood here.

I am O-positive.  That’s the most common blood type, nearly 40% of humans have it, despite O’s transmission on a recessive gene.  About 85-90% of people in need of transfusion can accept my blood. If I didn’t carry the Rh-positive antigen, 100% could take my blood.

Through the magic of genetics and natural anti-bodies, I am quite valuable to blood banks.  There is a virus connection here.  How appropriate for this time of novel coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and international tumult.

Most adult humans have, at some point in their lives, contracted the Cytomegalo Virus (or CMV). As much as 80%.  Of those affected, nearly 100% who contract it suffer from only mild symptoms, if any. Except infants. CMV can cause severe long-term damage to new arrivals – especially “preemies” – as their immune systems are just waking up. 

Of the many scores of herpes viruses discovered, only eight are known to regularly affect humans.  Once infected, our bodies almost always eventually mount a swift and decisive victory, driving the virus from the battlefield – our homeland: tissues, organs, blood.  Better, our well-evolved immune systems retain intermediate and long-term immunity via anti-bodies (of the five main types Immunoglobulin-M and -G antibodies are of the most interest here).

Like many types of virus, the herpes family is insidious.  Even though thoroughly thwarted by a superior foe, they execute a strategic retreat, never quite leaving the body.  They “hang out” in nerve cells. Lying dormant for long intervals, they occasionally “wake up” to see if their host – us! – is healthy enough to fight them off for another round of battle.  If the response is “yes”, they retreat again to the sanctuary of our nerves, a place a proper immune system has been trained to not attack.

This happens over and over again, until we die, as sufferers of HSV 1 and 2 can attest (Herpes Simplex 1 or 2); that is, repeated blistering around the mouth, or even in the mouth.  Those episodes of re-occurrence are only mildly annoying when compared to what can happen with the Chicken Pox virus (Vicella Zoster Virus, or VZV); later in life it can manifest as what’s commonly called “Shingles” – with an agonizing and often debilitating rash accompanied by stabbing pains.

Since CMV is in the Herpes family there is always a likelihood it is in someone’s blood; that is, if they have ever had it in their life. Hence, their blood must never be used for transfusions to infants.

My blood always tests negative for CMV anti-bodies, both IgM and IgG. This means it is not lying dormant somewhere and I am a safe donor for infants.

I donate blood as often as practicable.  I am of some use to society. We Type-Os are also delicious to mosquitoes. My wife says that having me around is better than using insect repellant.

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Until the previous turn of the century, blood types were unknown.  The micro-biological processes of transfusions and outcomes were a mystery, so it was practiced sparingly and as a last resort. Sometimes with spectacular success.  But more often with horrible, painful, fatal results.

At that time Austrian scientist Karl Landsteiner was wondering about this. He hit upon the idea of simply mixing blood from various people together to see what happened. No chemistry. No microscopes. In hindsight, this seems most unsophisticated – even elementary; but no one had done it. 

What he found was rather amazing. Some samples got along well together, and most others did not; they made globules: which was the observable effect of one blood trying to obviate the other; or each other.  Landsteiner had discovered blood types!  For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, decades later, in 1930.

At first he identified 3 types: he labeled them A, B and C.

Red Blood Cells

In the scaled down world of micro-biology and microbes, red blood cells are like titans. Thin and disk-like, they average about 7 microns in diameter, with a thickness of 2 microns, which “squishes” down to about 1 micron at the center, not unlike Life Saver candies. [From now on, I will give sizes in microns, with no units, for simplicity]. This topography gives the red cell a very large surface area compared to its mass and size, which is useful for its main duty: ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body and passing them across its surface membrane.

A CMV virion’s size is about 0.2. The SARS nCoV-2 is probably smaller than that: about 0.1.  Bacteria, like staph and strep are bigger, but still smaller than a reddie: size, on average, about 1.

Cytomegalovirus CMV, a DNA-type virus from Herpesviridae family. 3D illustration. CMV mostly causes diseases in newborns and immunocompromised patients

A and B blood types were found to carry antigens on their surface. Antigens are anything that triggers an “attack” from antibodies. These red blood cell antigens are, surprisingly, sugars of the D-galactose family, size about 0.0005 (or 1/2000th the average thickness of a red blood cell). 

A blood type which has no sugar antigens, C, was re-named O, which basically means zero, or none. A little later it was discovered that some types carry both A and B antigens, so they were naturally named “AB” – pretty rare.  These 4 types (A, B, AB and O) comprise 99.9+% of all blood types.

Now it’s not at all complicated to tell who can take whose blood for a transfusion. Since my O has no sugar antigens, anyone can take my blood.  But my body will “see” the A, B, and AB cells as invaders. We Type-Os are picky. Although anyone can take my blood, I can only take Type-O.

But wait, not quite so simple. There were still problems.

Rh markers were found a few decades later, around 1940 (also, sort of, by Landstein [1]) – just in time for most of WW2, resulting in fewer multiple-transfusion complications … and a better understanding of baby-to-mother Rh mismatch for the baby-boom that followed WW2.

The Rh markers are proteins (there are actually about 49 of them; the most common is type-D), about size 0.003.  About 90% of people have Rh-positive blood.

Floating nearby in the plasma are anti-bodies.  For mammals these are about size 0.1 – quite small.  In Rh-negative people, these little workers are always “on the ready” to identify Rh proteins as “bad guys.”  And also to identify foreign A and B antigens.

People, especially prospective mothers, with no Rh proteins (i.e. Rh-negative) must be careful with donations and pregnancies.  The first time the body encounters the Rh antigen the process or pregnancy is usually OK.  But the body is stirred up, and it remembers. The next time it’s “attack.” If a Rh-negative patient gets more than one Rh-positive transfusion — or a Rh-negative mom gets a second Rh-positive baby in utero — it can be bad news.

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Returning to the red blood cell.  It is quite large; a workhorse of the vascular system. Yet, one might wonder: why have we evolved so that its surface is laden with thousands of tag-a-longs and stowaways that seem more trouble than their load is worth?

Well, maybe those labels are a bit harsh.  Research suggests that the Rh proteins can provide a sort of osmotic-efficient pathway for the relatively large CO2 molecules (compared to oxygen) to slither through the cell membrane.  And it appeared millions of years ago – before anything like a hominoid walked on two legs. [2]

We can consider these ancient genetic tweaks as a sort of typo: a minor transcription mistake in typing out genetic text from DNA to RNA and back again to the DNA of a new cell, thus creating a new or different function for such genes.

Sugar antigens, similar to A and B, appear in the blood of all mammals. Again, these evolved in our pre-hominoid ancestors long ago. [3] Just why this is so, is a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps it was for a weird but clever type of “trick play herd immunity.”  A virus sees cell coatings as something that can provide an attach point on, or even pathway into, a cell.  If a population has a random collection of these sugars and proteins, then a single type of virus pandemic cannot wipe out the entire species.

Here I like to imagine a sports team cleverly crafted to beat any team at, say, a football match. That team is the Evil Virus. The first games for team EV are easy victories. The next several matches they stampede confidently onto apparently identical pitches, only to be confronted with rules for cricket. Or golf. And then tennis. Then speed skating.  Result?  Team EV fails. –  The species survives; the virus must go off and mutate further or die out.

All these rule changes – different cell coatings among individuals among the same species – makes our bodies suspicious of one another.  When there’s a transfusion mismatch the coatings are identified as antigens and marked for destruction by those tiny antibodies. 

Interestingly, something similar might be happening with the virus du jour, SARS CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Early analyses of cases (and deaths) in hard hit areas of Europe suggest that those with Type-A blood are disproportionately susceptible. [6] How or why this happens is not understood but could give virologists and immunologists an understanding of the virus and our bodies’ machinations.  Perhaps the A-type sugar is a sort of 5th column for the virus; or the presence of B-type antibodies somehow distracts, diminishes, or delays the body’s defense.

I expect there will be a plethora of studies of many sorts regarding this coronavirus, its impact, and our reactions in the months and years to come. Brace yourselves.

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Classic Charlie Chaplin Photo

The improvement and acceptance of blood type science went beyond medicine and into forensics. It helped reduce Charlie Chaplin’s embarrassment, but only a little.

Chaplin, the famous actor-comedian-film maker, was married four times and a well-know philanderer, as well as a misogynist. [4] A paternity suit against him in the ‘40s resulted in blood testing, and eventually changed family law. 

In the 1940s a young actress (with whom he was “friendly” – this during his 3rd marriage) claimed he was the father of her child. She sued him for child support. Blood tests on Chaplin, the child and mother showed that he could not possibly be the father. 

Chaplin, with recessive Type-O, could not have been the father of a Type-B child whose mother was Type-A.  Case dismissed?  No. She pressed her allegation, nonetheless.

Astounding to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to such quotidian data as DNA matching, blood tests were not permitted as evidence at the time. Chaplin lost the court case and was compelled to pay child support.  Worse: His trysting filled the pages of the days’ print media. His reputation was trashed.[5]

The law was changed a few years later.  But not in time for Chaplin.  He was so disgraced that – combined with other bad press and McCarthy-era distrust – he was even denied re-entry to the United States, in 1952. (He was not a US citizen, although he’d lived there for over 40 years).

He resided in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. He returned to America only once before he died, for a few days in 1972, then aged 83, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars.  On stage, with Jack Lemon, he received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in Academy Awards history.

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Even though Type-O is recessive, it has survived. Not surprisingly, its prevalence is about the same for whites and blacks; we are one race, after all.

Recessive?  Well, we Type-Os are sometimes weak, as attested to by Chaplin’s behavior.

That’s a wrap, from typos to Type-Os. Thanks for any corrections or suggestions.

Until next time, peace to you.

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Final footnote on Chaplin.  He was soon married a fourth time.  He reportedly approached the young 18-year old Oona O’Neill with the line: you look like my next ex-wife. As he was 38 years her elder (in fact nearly the same age as her father, famous playwright Eugene O’Neill) he was disgraced again. Next ex-wife?  Wrong! They stayed married for over 30 years, until his death, producing 8 children.  The eldest, Geraldine, starred remarkably with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago: at the tender age of 20 when filmed.

[1] Who discovered the Rh factor?  http://www.rvdoon.com/rh-negative-blood-blood-feud-which-scientist-discovered-the-rh-factor/

[2] Possible purpose of Rh proteins: https://phys.org/news/2005-05-rh-protein-biological-role.html

[3] Blood Types over 20 million years ago: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-mystery-of-human-blood-types-86993838/

Could be as recent as 3.5 million years ago: https://www.livescience.com/33528-why-blood-types-exist-compatible.html

[4] Charlie Chaplin: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2597412/2-000-lovers-comedy-genius-didnt-like-women-New-book-reveals-Charlie-Chaplins-obsession-young-girls-cruelly-treated-them.html

[5] Chaplin paternity, blood tests and court case: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63158/how-charlie-chaplin-changed-paternity-laws-america

[6] Type-A and COVID-19: https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200603/Blood-group-type-may-affect-susceptibility-to-COVID-19-respiratory-failure.aspx

Analysis: Bobbie and Billie Joe

“There was a virus goin’ ‘round,
     Papa caught it and he died last spring.
Now momma doesn’t seem to want to
     Do much of anything.”

– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry

Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation.  The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].

Album Cover: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence. 

“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound”
 –
Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.

Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures.  It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story.  It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness.  Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.

… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 
–  Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II. 

Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry.  We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe.  And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette.  She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. 

Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer.  Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?”  Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.

Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.

The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.

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The first Verse:

It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay.

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.”

Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source).  Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country.  Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.”  She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family. 

During those early years, her family reportedly had no electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life.  One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs like “Billie Joe.”

Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South.  I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness.  As in: I’m just here telling a story.

The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story.  What details support that supposition?

— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense.  Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants.  It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.

Chopping Cotton: many weeds are herbicide resistant. Chopping requires a good hoe, sun protection, gloves and a strong back

Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together.  It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness.  If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it. 

“Brother” is baling hay.  The June 3 date again makes sense.  “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa).  It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year.  It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.

Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear.  If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.

Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.

“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.”  Clearly, this is southern-speak.  Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.” 

In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.

In many ways the south is traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called “dinner.”  I worked various factory jobs in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner break.”

[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]

Then she said: “I got some news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Boom.  Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now.  You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?

Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.

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The second verse:

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie 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’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.


Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Talahatchee Bridge, Mississippi

Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests.  They traded a milk cow for her first piano.

After the divorce, when she and her mother were in California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved. Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing songs.  She taught herself guitar, banjo and bass.

A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer.  She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl.  Now she had all the tools to do something with it.

She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.

Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.

Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved.  He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.

“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas.  “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash.  It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.

Biscuits and black-eyed peas.  Again, this is a true southern experience. The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun ahead. 

Black Eyed Pea stew, southern style

Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets.  They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil.  Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.

And what southern meal would be complete without biscuits?  Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when smothered in gravy. 

Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.

Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”

Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower forty”, meaning forty acres.  That’s a lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or just work it, we don’t know. 

The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground.  The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains.  You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop.  So yes, June 3rd again fits.  And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”

In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the plow.  So, they are not completely destitute. 

Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical.  Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history.
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The 3rd verse:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don’t seem right.

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge.
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Bobbie Gentry, on Music Hall TV, 1968

Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement.  The lighting, the sound, the production.  And, she was very successful at it.

She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds.  I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old.  I was blown away:  Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.

Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom.  I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).

The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos.  The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person.  Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend. 

“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago.  This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt.  Wanting to fit in, he complies.  Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider.  He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”

And what is a “picture show”?  It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South.  It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.”  Carroll County is not very populated.  Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats).  So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.

No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.

Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge?  I think this is a possible clue to the story.  “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber.  #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill.  But: why was Billie Joe there?  I suspect he was looking for a job.  And he got turned down. 

Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.

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The 4th verse:

And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way:

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Mmmmm. Southern biscuits and gravy

Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s.  She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows. 

In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976.  It was released again, and it made the charts.

But – she insisted – the title and words to the original song were incorrect.  It should have been Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.

Bobbie Gentry, 1969, Show Promo Pic [citation below, fair use here]

Ode to Billy Joe was the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65 in the US).  That’s probably the only time in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.

“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976.  In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).

Cover to soundtrack album for movie: Ode to Billy Joe

The movie, also called Ode to Billy Joe (like the re-released song), was produced and directed by Max Baer, Jr. He’s better known as Jethro of The Beverly Hillbilliesnot authentic southern – and also the son of Heavyweight champion boxing champion, Max Baer.

Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie.  She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.”  If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.

At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes.  She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation. 

About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages.  One was short.  The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short.  Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child.  I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.

Anyhow, by 1981 she was twice-divorced and had completely vanished.

Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking).  I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.

There is only one verse left.  You can tell the song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would never have made it on the radio in 1967.

What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”

Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon.  Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it.  As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”

We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood.  Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her. 

The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper.  “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please, would you?”

Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South.  Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].

So, Brother Taylor.  He gets a name, and a title.  He’s young.  He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator?  And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter?  The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.

And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge?  Doesn’t he have pastoral duties?  In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?

Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.

And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?”  — What were they throwing off the bridge?  Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?

Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.

__________________________________________________________

[5th and final verse]
A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe.
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring.
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

So many flowers to pick

Well, papa died.  Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him?  This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor.  So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance.  It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.

A little more insight into “Papa” is provided by another song on the very same album with “Billie Joe” — this one called “Papa, Won’t you let me go to Town?” [lyrics]. Papa is not a very nice man.

Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.

The story’s narrator.  Where is she?  She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?

She is up on the ridge, picking flowers.  Then she wanders over to the bridge and drops them into the water.  Apparently over and over.

Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped.  What goes around, comes around.  With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.

There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about.  What really happened.  The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery.  Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.

______________________________________________________________________

Bobbie Gentry disappeared.  At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.

Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades.  We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.  Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe it was a ring.”

Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots.  She takes no visitors and takes no calls.  And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.

By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe.  Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him.  Details that fit with the story.

The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]

But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is.  If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out.  It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.

Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work.  He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate.  Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.

No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.

Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age.  Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.

In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.

That’s sad.  It’s a strong message.  It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.

With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020      

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnotes

[1] Some bio links: http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
[2] Photo citation: By Capitol Records – http://rock60-70.ru/albums/bobbie-gentry-%E2%80%8E-patchwork-1971-usa-folkpopsoul.php, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58064389

Afterthoughts & Things not included
Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.

The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters.  Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity.  You can’t jump off that bridge anymore.  It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt.  Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints.  Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses.  It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime.  Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below).  The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.”  Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.

End of the World?

Halley’s Comet – named for Sir Edmond Halley, the English bloke who used Newton’s new art of calculus to surmise that frequently seen comets in history were, in fact the same comet – returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years or so, on average. [1] When this occurs, it is usually quite visible with the naked eye for weeks at a time.

76 years is quite a short period for a comet that can be so easily seen.  It is the only one that can be seen twice in a single human lifetime.

Alas, the only appearance during my lifetime – in 1986 – was far less than spectacular.  Earth’s and Halley’s orbits were sort of “out of synch” and thus minimized earth’s view of the comet when it was brightest. I was most disappointed, since I had read about it so much and had been very let down by the “flame out” of Kahoutek in 1973-74.

Such has not always been the case.

In 1066 the Comet portended the defeat of English King Harold II to William, the conqueror from Normandy at a battlefield near Hastings[2A] So important was this astronomical sign that its significance and image are captured on the magnificent 70 meter (230 feet) long tapestry that that tells the story of conquest, and still survives in Bayeux, Normandy. [2B]

Over the millennia, many other occasions of Halley’s return and sighting have been recorded in several cultures. As there was no effective difference between astronomy and astrology, a comet’s appearance (exceedingly rare as they are) are usually associated with some momentous decision, or a historical event.

Could that event be the end of the world?

The year was 1910, and the comet’s return was certainly expected. Based on its path through the solar system since its 1835 appearance, astronomers and physicists predicted it would appear in spring. [3]

And yet, in January, a comet brighter than anything anyone had expected appeared!  Was this Halley’s?  Appearing early? Astrophysicists re-worked and labored over their calculations again.  As they did, the comet got so bright it was visible during the day!  It’s brightness rivaled that of famously bright evening and morning “stars” – Venus and Jupiter –  but with a tail painted across the sky. 

Soon enough scientists announced: No! This is not Halley’s.  This is an unrecorded comet, probably with a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years!  People alive then were fortunate to see such a spectacle. That 1910 comet is often referred to as “The Daylight Comet.”

Historians regularly call 1910 “The Year of Two Comets.” Just a few months after the Daylight Comet faded away Halley’s made its scheduled appearance in April. 

Astronomers first sighted it in early April, and it could be seen with the naked eye starting around April 10. They tracked it, and – again – many scientists and astronomers made their calculations and observations.  Those who calculate did their calculations: Each orbit of a comet is different, and everyone wanted to know how bright the comet would get, and how close it would get to earth.

From the Dallas Star, May, 1910

On April 20 the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the sun – and became very easily viewable from earth with casual unaided observation.  [On cue, Mark Twain passed away[3]]. After perihelion they predicted an Earth-comet approach so close that on May 18th Earth would pass through the comet’s tail Now that’s astonishing!

What would happen then?  How should this news be treated? Should they let everyone, and anyone, know?  Would panic and hysteria ensue? What about the news that spectroscopic surveys of the tail suggested the tail was comprised of a high percentage of cyanogen, a precursor to cyanide? 

A few scientists suggested that this could make the entire atmosphere fatally toxic! But most scientists thought that there was no danger.  Yet, we couldn’t know until we actually passed through.

What do you do when the world might end?  Many people just stayed home, preferring to spend their final hours with their families. Factories shut down for want of workers. Yet, in many places around the world the answer was: have a party.  A big party.  Get all your friends, family, food and booze together and enjoy yourselves like there might be no tomorrow. Humans around the world wondered what might happen, … while partying. It was a delicious time: while the vast majority had little or no fear of the “calamity”, they took it as an opportunity to have a good time, enjoy this singular event: a few spectacular hours of passage. And by doing so – maybe – mocking those who were in hysteria.

It might have been the last time until now (the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, March 2020) that the world has been more or less united in the same activities.  Mankind united by a single set of events.

Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. When it was over, of course, nothing happened.  They had simply witnessed and experienced an event that probably no other human had!  And no other human will for a very long time. [5]

Well, perhaps more than that happened.  Quite a few probably had hangovers – and there might have been a mini-baby boom in early 1911. (There was, in fact, a few percent jump in US births in 1911 over 1910; however, (1) that was a time of such massive immigration; and (2) birth numbers jumped consistently from 1900 until 1918 [insert WW1 comment here], so it’s not clear what we should attribute this mini-baby boom to.) [4]

Anyhow, one way or the other, this SARS-CoV-2 thing (and the illness it causes, COVID-19) will pass. Some of us have panicked.  Nearly all of us will survive, although many of us will be changed; maybe with larger waistlines.

Unlike extraordinary 1910 – with two brilliant comets, and with Halley’s extremely close-approach to Earth – an epidemic or pandemic will occur again.  For some of us, perhaps, within our lifetime.  What will happen next time?  Much will depend on what we have learned. And what we remember.

I hope it’s not the end of the world.  But in any case, we can have a party.

By the way: Halley’s is predicted to appear again in the summer of 2061.  I don’t think I’ll hang around for that one.  Gotta join ol’ Mark Twain sometime. But if I do make it to then: we’re having a heck of a party!

Until next time, I wish you peace and health

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] Halley’s orbital period varies a bit with every orbit; and the variation is random.  Why? A) The comet sheds a fraction of its mass with each inner solar system pass due to solar heating; and B) the comet is tiny and light, and thus subject to (usually) slight gravitational perturbation by planets.  Halley’s once had an orbital period of many tens of thousands of years, falling from the Kuiper Belt – or more likely the Oort Cloud – but after repeated close encounters with planets, it has been captured and now strays only about as far away from the sun as the 8th planet Neptune at aphelion – it’s farthest distance from the sun. 

[2A] My son Aaron and I walked the battlefield in April, 2010. It is actually quite far inland from Hastings. There is a lovely town there now, with a beautiful Abbey. The town is called, appropriately enough: “Battle”

[2B] My wife and I were fortunate enough to have time to walk along and see the entire tapestry during our Normandy tour, in May, 2018.

[3] Mark Twain was born in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible in the night sky.  As he aged, he grew weary and bitter – he had lost his fortune, three of his four children perished before him, and then his wife went. In such a dark cloud he predicted his own demise in 1910, concurrent with Halley’s reappearance.  He was correct.

[4] US Live Birth Statistics   https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/t1x0197.pdf

[5] Deaths from Halley’s.  There were quite a few deaths associated with Halley’s, almost all of them due to the hysteria.  I read a report of a 16-year old Canadian girl falling to her death from the roof of a building where an “end of the world” party was being held.

[6] Author’s note: My disappointment with Halley’s 1986 appearance was greatly relieved by Hale-Bopp in March and April, of 1997.  On a spring break trip to the Arizona desert, with perfect viewing, Hale-Bopp was magnificent.  And it’s brightest night was almost exactly the same as a lunar eclipse and – right next to the moon – Mars in perfect and brilliant opposition