Ode to Billie Joe

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Ode to Billie Joe is a country blues song, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry from her 1967 album of the same name.

The song reached the #1 spot after only five weeks, was nominated for eight Grammy Awards (winning three), and is routinely listed on "greatest songs" lists.

The song is told from a first person narrative: the narrator is the daughter in a Mississippi Delta, recounting a story from June 3 of the past year. After working all morning in the fields (the father plowing, the daughter chopping cotton, and her brother bailing hay) they are called to dinner[1] by the mother, who while eating passes along tragic news: Billie Joe McAllister, a young boy from nearby Choctaw Ridge, killed himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

The father is seemingly unmoved: he mentions that Billie Joe "never had a lick of sense" and mentions that he has plowing to complete, nonchalantly asking for biscuits while speaking. The brother recounts how he and Billie Joe and another boy pulled a prank on the daughter, and asks if she wasn't speaking to him after evening church services; he too is unmoved while asking for a slice of apple pie.

The mother notices that while all this is going on, the daughter hasn't eaten anything, but is more interested to tell how "Brother Taylor" (a young preacher) came by and wanted to have Sunday dinner with the family, also mentioning how he noticed a young girl resembling her with Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge.

The final verse quickly shifts to current events: the brother married and bought a store in Tupelo, while the father died of a virus the following spring and the mother seemingly disinterested in living. The daughter isn't much better, saying that she spends "a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge" and then dropping them "into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge".

The lyrics have been an endless source of speculation, centering on three unanswered questions (Gentry herself stated her intent was to show the lack of empathy people can have toward others who have suffered):

  1. Why did Billie Joe jump off the bridge? (Gentry stated that whatever happened at the bridge led to his actions, but has said nothing more.)
  2. What did Billie Joe and the daughter throw off the bridge? (Gentry has said that audiences have come up with more answers than she ever intended: answers have included a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, flowers, a wedding or engagement ring, and a baby -- either stillborn or aborted.)
  3. What was the relationship between Billie Joe and the daughter? (One common suggestion was that the relationship was interracial, which in the 1960's American South could (literally) lead to a man's death.[2] Another suggestion was that the relationship between the two -- even if the same race -- had become a sexual one, leading to speculation that the remains of a baby were what was thrown off the bridge.)

The song would later be made into a 1976 film of the same name; in the film it was implied that Billie Joe had a homosexual relationship while drunk, and killed himself out of grief, while the daughter (named Bobbie Joe in the film) threw a rag doll (a symbol of her throwing away her childhood innocence) and later leaves town.

References

  1. In the Southern United States, "dinner" represents the meal served at noon (which, elsewhere, is called "lunch"); "supper" refers to the evening meal (which, elsewhere, is called "dinner").
  2. Shortly after the release of the song, Gentry was featured on the cover of Time crossing a bridge over the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi; Money is near where Emmitt Till was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman.