Ode to Billie Joe

They made a movie out of this one … the song came out in 1967, the movie nine years later in 1976.  The song was written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi.  The song tells 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.

Questions arose among listeners: what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Speculation ran rampant after the song hit the airwaves. Gentry said in a November 1967 interview that it was the question most asked of her by everyone she met. She named flowers, an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted baby as the most often guessed items. Although she knew what the item was, she would not reveal it, saying only “Suppose it was a wedding ring.”

“It’s in there for two reasons,” she said. “First, it locks up a definite relationship between Billie Joe and the girl telling the story, the girl at the table. Second, the fact that Billie Joe was seen throwing something off the bridge – no matter what it was – provides a possible motivation as to why he jumped off the bridge the next day.”

The song always leaves me a bit sad, but still, I like it …

Ode to Billie Joe
Bobbie Gentry

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 blackeyed 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

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-a 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

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 Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy 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

Songwriters: Bobbie Gentry
Ode to Billie Joe lyrics © Spirit Music Group

21 thoughts on “Ode to Billie Joe

  1. Thanks for sharing. Always liked this song, heart-breaking as it is. Of course I had to see the movie when it came out. I also read the book. Think the book was written by Max Bear.

    On Mon, Jul 30, 2018 at 10:01 AM Filosofa’s Word wrote:

    > jilldennison posted: “They made a movie out of this one … the song came > out in 1967, the movie nine years later in 1976. The song was written and > recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, > Mississippi. The song tells of a rural Mississippi family” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll tell you how that song makes me feel: it’s like a deep post hole left empty out in a field, slowly filling up with dirt and weeds. A song about a very deep and disturbing loss as expressed by poor country folk. I could never quite listen to it as the theme runs too close to home.

    Liked by 1 person

      • My comment wasn’t meant in any personal way. Some people love the song and one thing can be said about it: it’s true to that kind of life. Poor people who live off the land can’t afford too much sentiment or being squeamish. Binder Dundat! Until I broke free of that kind of life, we worked. When we weren’t working, in school or in church, we slept.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, I didn’t take it as a personal affront at all. Music is a very personal choice, almost as much so, I think, as religion, and I have been told by both my children and my friend Herb that my taste in music sucks! I’m always amazed when I post a song and others like it also! 😀

          Like

    • Yeah, I can see why … in an interview I read with her, she said the purpose of the song was to show the apathy toward his suicide, and to show how mother & daughter had such a disconnect from each other. Not a happy song, for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jill, this is a terrific storytelling song. Like the song “Polk Salad Annie,” it has a pacing to it that allow the words to be heard. Plus, the rural and southern expressions and conversation over the dinner table allow the story to be told as they pass food to each other. It is a very fine piece of writing. Thanks for sharing, Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so happy you like it!!! No, I hadn’t considered any of that, either … I don’t usually look past the words, for I’m too much of a pragmatist. ‘Tis why I struggle to understand poetry, for there are usually subtle meanings hidden amongst the words. Have a great week, my friend!!! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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