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 we walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And so it began; both the song and a lifelong quest to find its meaning. It was released on July 10, 1967, and instantly made Bobbie Gentry a star. It quickly went to number one on the charts in America and number three World Wide. It received eight Grammy nominations and three wins. It captured the imagination of everyone. Gentry’s smoky, sexy, Delta delivery was something very new, and soon there were scores of imitators. She would go on to make other albums and had other hits, but nothing matched the success of Ode to Billy Joe.
It made the Tallahatchie Bridge in Leffore County, Mississippi a tourist attraction, and that is quite a feat.
Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed 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”
Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
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 just don’t seem right”
“I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge”
“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
It was told in a first-person narrative, which for a pop chart winner was pretty unique if not unheard of. We had a 45 of it, and played it over and over, caught up in the delicious mystery of the lyrics.
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”
Speculation ran rampant throughout the music world. Why did Billy Joe jump off the bridge and what did it have to do, if anything with what he and the narrator threw off the bridge. And just what was it that they threw off the bridge anyway? Don, our cousin Chris and I would spend hours in Chris’ basement, speculating, coming up with different theories just like thousands, maybe millions of others around the world; rarely had a song been the musical equivalent of a suspense short story.
Ours and the worlds theories ranged from everything from a wedding ring to a rag doll (symbolizing the death of childhood and innocence) to a draft card all the way to the most popular, an aborted baby.
Clearly not your average top ten pop hit! We were used to “Sherry why don’t you come out tonight?”, and here we were considering a couple throwing a dead baby off a bridge, soon to be followed by the father as the story in one of our favorite songs of the summer. Crazy shit man, crazy. But brilliant too. To create a song so dark, yet so beautiful – well that is art, isn’t it?
A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
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
To be honest, every once in a while I still Google it to see if any new theory or explanation has arisen. And that is saying something (I know…mostly about me), but also about the power of a song written over fifty years ago. You won’t find me Googling Come Fly with Me, to understand the lyrics; figured that one out on the first try. But this one, this one still gets me every time, even though I know I will never know.
Sometimes, after a few too many on a Saturday night, I will be sitting alone in the darkness of my living room with my beloved cat, Mary on my lap, and I will just blurt out:
“What the fuck did they throw off that goddamned bridge??!!”
Mary will look at me with that look that says:” Let it go already”.
And the night outside responds with silence.
Just like Bobbie Gentry wanted it to for all time.
So here’s to you Bobbie- nicely done. You have driven me crazy, but nicely done.