Bobbie Gentry released "Ode to Billie Joe" in July of 1967. It was a number-one hit in the United States and has been ranked #412 in Rolling Stones' List of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song is a classic Southern Gothic, or as I prefer to refer to the genre "Rotting in the South," story of a family sitting around the dinner table and nonchalantly discusing Billie Joe's suicide. Mama is the first to tell of the news she heard from Choctaw Ridge that Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. While most of the family seems unconcerned or not surprised with Billie Joe's death it is apparent that this is the first time the narrator/singer is hearing the tragic news, and she is touched in a deeper way. It appears as though there was a hidden relationship of some sort between the singer and Billie Joe. The song lyrics hold several unsolved musical mysteries: What was the relationship between the narrator and Billie Joe? What did the preacher see Billie Joe and a girl that looked a lot like the singer throwing off of the Tallahatchie Bridge? Why did Billie Joe jump off of the bridge? Read more and watch the video after the jump.
Perhaps the most popular theory about what the girl and Billie Joe threw off of the bridge is their baby, born out of wedlock or possibly aborted or stillborn. Billie Joe had such guilt that he ended up following his murdered son into the muddy waters. The less gruesome theory is that they were seen throwing an engagement ring off of the bridge. Another theory has them throwing a gun off of the bridge because the singer knew that Billie Joe had suicidal tendencies, and this was her solution to prevent his death, unsuccessful as she may have been.
Some listeners believe that the bridge was the dividing point for the town, the point of "the wrong side of the tracks", if you will. Was this a relationship of rich and poor or possibly black and white - was it a romance that would never have been accepted in the rural South? It appears there can never be too many questions about this song so let me throw one more out there: Could Papa have known about a relationship between his daughter and Billie Joe and thrown him from the bridge in a fit of rage? Afterall, nobody actually claims to have seen Billie Joe jump.
Bobbie Gentry has never given any real answers to any of these questions. She claims that the song is not autobiographical and that she has no idea why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge. She says that she simply made the whole thing up. Gentry will leave it as one of the great mysteries of pop culture. It's right up there with the mystery of who Carly Simon was singing about in "You're so Vain."
The song was so popular that Warner Bros. made a film version of it in 1976, "Ode to Billy Joe." I haven't seen this film, however, it's my understanding that besides simply changing the spelling of Billie Joe's name, Hollywood came up with a reason for his suicide. In the film, Billy Joe kills himself because he is unable to accept that fact that he is homosexual! I would love to have sat in on the brainstorming sessions for that story idea!
With that I'll leave you with Bobbie Gentry performing "Ode to Billie Joe."
Thanks to 2old2Rock for uploading this video to YouTube.