Thursday, January 28, 2010



In 1967 country singer Bobbie Gentry released the bluesy Ode to Billie Joe. The song's haunting and mysterious lyrics made it an instant hit, and today it remains one of the most popular country songs of all time.

The lyrics of Billy Joe recount an odd Southern gothic tale of a young man's tragic suicide. The story is incomplete however, and we are left with many unanswered questions.

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.

The mysteries surrounding the characters in the song created something of a cultural sensation at the time and at least one urban legend. A popular speculation at the release of the song in 1967 (unsupported by the song's lyrics) was that the narrator and Billie Joe threw their baby (live, stillborn or aborted) off the bridge, and Billie Joe then killed himself out of grief and guilt.

Singer Bobbie Gentry walking across the bridge, photo from Life Magazine November, 1967

Gentry has stated in numerous interviews over the years that the focus of the song was not the suicide itself, but the rather matter-of-fact way that the narrator's family was discussing the tragedy over dinner, unaware that Billie Joe might well have been her boyfriend.

What I like about the song: I can feel the Southern heat right through the haunting tune, and the sublime Southern sense of acceptance of a senseless tragedy; even the girl who wrote the song doesn't know why Billie Joe committed suicide.
- S.L.



  1. I lived up that neck of the woods for a while (Charleston, Grenada, Indianola) and all through that area was a sense of oppression and hopelessness. When young people graduated, if they graduated from school, they usually left as fast as they could. I can still remember cotton being grown right up to the steps of a tarpaper shack and just enough room for a basketball hoop in the back. The big houses usually didn't have cotton that close but they had shiny new trucks in the driveway. It seemed that evil was just over the horizon, ready to destroy anyone or anything that was different or didn't cower down with averted eyes. You weren't supposed to notice bad things.

  2. I've tried and tried over the years to figure it out but.........noooo ceegar!!

  3. whatever b*#ch, OBAMA President now!

  4. I thought he jumped because he was gay.

  5. ... Harper Valley PTA, just saying.