Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It was the third of June...

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 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.

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 Billy 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 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 Billie 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 Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

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 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.

Facts we can deduce from the song:

1) The story takes place in Mississippi. Choctaw Ridge, Carroll County, Tupelo, and the Tallahatchie Bridge all exist in real life. The opening line suggests the speaker lives in the Delta region of the state, which is located in nothern Mississippi.

2) the speaker's father does not care much for Bilie Joe, her mother is more sympathetic, and her brother was apparently a friend of his at one time.

3) the speaker apparently had some degree of sympathetic relationship with Billie Joe. She was talking to him at church and was seen with him on the bridge. When she finds out he is dead she loses her appetite (unlike the rest of the family) and later spends "a lot of time" throwing flowers off the bridge in what is clearly some sort of memorial tribute.

4) the family of the speaker is largely oblivious to the relationship she had with Billie Joe, and for some reason she has no interest in bringing it up.

Unresolved questions from the song:

1) What did the speaker and Billie Joe throw off the bridge, and at what time did this event occur? The fact that Brother Taylor visited the speaker's house on the same day Billie Joe died does not necessarily mean he saw the girl and Billie Joe throwing the thing off the bridge on this day as well.

2) What degree of relationship did the speaker and Billie Joe have? Was it sexual? Ages are not given, but it is suggested that the speaker is at the very least a teenager. She lives with her parents, but is capable of doing hard labor in the field. Her brother is old enough to get married and move out of the house. The brother recalls putting a frog down his sister's dress- a rather immature stunt- but this likely happened years ago and is being remembered out of nostalgia.

3) The key question- why did Billie Joe commit suicide, and to what degree was this related to:
-his relationship with the speaker
-talking to the speaker at church the Sunday prior
-he and the speaker throwing something off the bridge
-visiting the sawmill the day before


Regardless of the unanswered questions of the song's plot, the song nevertheless contains several themes. The first is simply that of a "period piece" of Southern life in the early 20th Century. 

The other theme is a darker one, about the indifference we often show towards the loss of human life. The speaker's family talks about a young man's suicide in the most nonchalant way possible. The line "Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense/ pass the biscuits, please" is a great example. Aside from the speaker, no one seems to know or care much about Billie Joe. His death is just a source of dinnertime gossip, like the weather.


1) The most common theory is that Billie Joe and the speaker were indeed involved in some degree of romantic / sexual relationship that was kept hidden from the speaker's family because the father strongly disliked Billie Joe. This in turn is commonly interpreted as meaning the couple had an unplanned child at some point, and they threw the baby off the bridge together rather than deal with this manifestation of their illicit relationship. The guilt stemming from the murder of his own child later in turn caused Billie Joe to kill himself.

Some have gone even further and speculated that because the child was unwanted, it was either stillborn or aborted in some haphazard fashion, and then quietly "disposed" of off the bridge to hide the proof that the pregnancy had ever occurred. I've heard some point to the relevance of the "Child, what's happened to your appetite" line as a subtle key to this. Loss of appetite commonly occurs after giving birth. But it also commonly occurs when someone is depressed.

2) Another theory is that Billie Joe and the speaker are different races. This is consistent with the song's Southern theme and may explain the speaker's motivation for keeping her relationship with Billie Joe hidden. The food being eaten at dinner may be intended to represent traditional black Southern cuisine, and the mother's use of the word "child" to address her daughter is a rather distinctly African-American expression. The speaker similarly mentions picking cotton, which is likewise a chore that has been primarily associated with Southern blacks since the days of slavery. An inter-racial relationship during the period in which the song is set would clearly be a social taboo, and may have led the speaker to break up with Billie Joe, who proceeded to commit suicide. The unwanted child theory can be similarly strengthened by this premise, as a mixed-race baby would be even more socially unacceptable than an mixed race romance.

3) A third theory says that Billie Joe's suicidal tendencies were well-known to the speaker. The thing thrown off the bridge was thus a gun, after she successfully convinced Billie Joe not to kill himself. But then later he jumped off the bridge anyway, proving the failure of her efforts.

Is there a "correct" answer?

It depends. There are two "official" sources you can cite.

1) According to the 1975 movie

In 1976 Warner Bros. made a movie inspired by the song, entitled simply Ode to Billy Joe. It starred Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister and Glynnis O'Connor as the speaker, who was given the name "Bobbie Lee Hartley."  The film's tagline was "What the song didn't tell you, the movie will" and thus purported to provide an authoritative conclusion to the mystery.

The movie has been criticized for taking too many artisitc liberties and introducing too much new information that is not even hinted at in the song. Wikipedia provides the following plot summary:

Set in the early 1950s, the film explores the budding relationship between budding relationship between Bobbie Lee Hartley [the song's narrator character] and Billy Joe McAllister.

Hartley and McAllister struggle to form a relationship despite resistence from Hartley's family, who contend she is too young to date. They develop the relationship, despite the odds in their way. One night at a party, however, McAllister gets drunk. In his inebriated state, he makes love to another man dressed in drag, though later he reveals he knew what he was doing. He bids an enigmatical goodbye to Hartley. Overcome with guilt, McAllister subsequently kills himself by jumping off the bridge spanning the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi.


The object thrown from the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll; throughout the book and film she voices her concerns that she will always remain a child. The ragdoll being thrown from the bridge marks the point at which she begins moving towards adulthood.

The reference to the "book" refers to the 1976 movie novelization.

2) According to Bobby Gentry

Bobby Gentry has historically remained coy about the meaning of her song. According to her, the main theme of Billie Joe was simply death and dying, and the ways in which we can be indifferent and oblivious to the suffering of others. 

In a 2002 interview with the Florida-based TCPalm.com website, Herman Raucher, the screenplay writer of the Billy Joe film, recalls his encounter with Gentry as he tried to figure out the song's meaning:

INTERVIEWER: [You wrote] the screenplay for the Deep South, song-inspired film Ode to Billy Joe. How did that come about? 
RAUCHER: There’s an actor and writer and producer and director named Max Baer, whose father was the world [heavyweight boxing] champion. And Max called me because 
Summer of ‘42 just knocked him out, and he said, I’ve got the rights to Ode to Billie Joe. Now, you have to understand that Ode to Billie Joe was, at that time, the largest selling record in musical history.
I said, ‘Max, what the hell do I know about 
Ode to Billie Joe?’ 
He says, ‘I want you to come out here and meet with Bobbie Gentry - I’ll pay your way out here.’ 
I said, OK. ... Max and I go to meet her, and I ask her what does the song mean?
She said, ‘I made it up. I don’t know what it means.’
I said, ‘You don’t know why he jumped off the bridge?’
She said, ‘I have no idea.’

He proceeds to explain that since the song apparently lacked a "true" meaning, he simply made up his own storyline to explain the lyrics.

Bobbie Gentry is still alive, but has largely fallen from the public radar screen. She has never published an autobiography, so today it is difficult to determine if she has ever made any more authoritative statements on the meaning of "Billie Joe." There is no reason to deny Raucher's story. Many musicians, notably John Lennon and the Beatles, have frequently made similar statements indicating that their songs' lyrics don't have a firm meaning and it is instead up for the listener to determine their significance.

It does seem a bit odd to me that Herman Raucher would travel all the way to meet Gentry in person just so she could tell him the song has no meaning. Couldn't a simple phone call have sufficed?

What do you think the song means?  What happened on the third of June, that makes this song about more than "another sleepy, dusty Delta day"?


naturgesetz said...

I had never caught the racial overtone in the family's vocabulary. But I've always thought that the something thrown from the bridge was the speaker and Billie Joe's infant. They could both be black. I had always imagined both as white. In any case, he got her pregnant; they disposed of the baby; he committed suicide in remorse. That's my take.

silvereagle said...

First time to ever read such an indepth study of the song...from many viewpoints. But, I tend to think that as the singer said "I just made it up...it means nothing." or words to that effect.

Also the first time to see the words in print. Very effective. Now I will be humming the song all day!!!

Thanks, as usual, for a great post.

Oh, look into the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, for his two paintings The Second of May and the Third of May...no doubt what he was expressing!!!

Anonymous said...

Could mit have been an inter racial couple. They talked after church and blacks and whites did not go to the same churches.
I always thought Billie Jo was gay and narrator was a good friend and found out. Hence, was friendly with the brother, but lately not so much.

Mike said...

I had actually heard all of those theories. Great song, btw.

Gonna have to add that to my iTunes to go with my old person musical tastes that my partner wonders about...