May 19, 2009

Ode to “Ode to Billie Joe”

Filed under: Lyrics,Music,Mystery,Mystic,people,Songs,South — rnvanya @ 2:02 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is an ode to one of my all-time favorite songs, “Ode to Billie Joe,” composed and originally performed by Bobbie Gentry. The song was released in 1967 and literally took the world by storm. To me, it exemplefies the songwriting craft at its highest form — a bouncy, simple beat that’s enjoyable to hear without being obnoxious that provides a foundation for absolutely amazing lyrics that paint a clear picture about a haunting and tragic story set in the rural South.

To me, it’s as though the “Ode” takes an entire complex William Faulkner masterpiece novel and condenses it into one mysterious, mystical song. There’s so much mystery, tragedy, and imagry packed into one beautifully crafted tune. No wonder the popularity of the song has endured through the years. The song poses questions that I, for one, have pondered for a long time and have yet to find conclusive answers for. What was it that the girl and Billie Joe threw off the bridge? What exactly was the relationship between the girl and Billie Joe? Were they romantically involved, or was she just a very good friend, someone considerably younger than Billie Joe who really admired him?

Please share your theory about what the girl and Billie Joe tossed off the bridge into the muddy water.

Here are the lyrics, followed by a video clip of Bobbie Gentry performing the song. She was a little ahead of her time. This clip is actually an MTV piece released before MTV became so popular.

Ode to Billie Joe
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, Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And 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.”
And 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’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 Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

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



  1. Haven’t heard that song in a long time, but it still evokes the same melancholy and curiosity that it ever did. The ending ran some chills down my arm when I heard it, too.

    Good one.

    Comment by aA — May 19, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

  2. I remember thinking as a kid that Billie Joe was a name for either a boy or a girl, and that Billie Joe had been female, and only thought a boy by the entire town – except by the narrator, who knew otherwise. This lends an entirely new angle to what might have been thrown off the bridge. If I had made the movie based on the song, I would have had the object thrown off the bridge by the two women be a child witness who threatened to tell. A gay male angle makes this song ridiculous. A lesbian one explains it better. By the way, I’m straight and used to also think Billie Joe was white but had impregnated an unnamed black girl – hence the object = biracial infant. “Billie Joe never had a luck of sense”: as a southerner I have heard this euphemism so many times for the local white boy who’s into black girls. Bobbie Gentry grew up in the south and probably heard it a thousand times, too. She also has a sexually ambiguous first name like Billie, so the lesbian angle was probably not lost on her either. Just theories.

    Comment by Marnie — July 14, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

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