Dateline: Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi

June 3: Today, long-time residents of this delta town recall the mysterious death of Billie Joe MacAllister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. No reason was ever established for the suicide, although some witnesses alleged that young MacAllister and a young woman were seen earlier tossing something off the bridge.

Every year on this date, I almost always remember Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry, which came out 40 years ago this fall. I even own the LP named after the song, which I believe I got from the Capitol Records Club via the “negative option”; i.e., I failed to mail in the refusal card in time. The meaning of the song has been long dissected. I think as one person wrote, it was ancient the day it came out. It said a lot by saying so little. What WAS thrown off the bridge? I remember the local radio station near Binghamton, WENE, running a contest about that, in the day. The winning entry was a diamond ring. Most theorists, though, had more sinister theories.

There was a 1976 movie, directed by Max Baer, Jr., Jethro Bodine from The Beverly Hillbillies, which as I recall, was awful AND offensive, and came up with a theory for Billy Joe’s death that was a preposterous leap from the evidence given in the song. BTW, the name was spelled Billie Joe on the album, but most lyrics cite it as Billy Joe.

The tune, which rivaled only American Pie five years later in that era for discussions of the true meaning of the song, was never really clarified by songwriter Gentry. The song was parodied by Dylan in Clothesline Saga. But my favorite piece of trivia about the song is that it can be sung to the tune of Prince’s 1999. It’s not a perfect fit, but pretty close!

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 Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

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.”
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 Billy 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 you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

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 ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy 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 wanna 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.

LISTEN to Ode to Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry HERE or HERE.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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