The most famous song about June 3 ,”Ode to Billie Joe,” was written and performed by Bobbie Gentry. Gentry also played guitar on her song. She was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi in 1944, and grew up there.”Ode to Billie Joe” landed near the top of the Country and Pop charts in the summer of 1967 and remained there for the rest of the year. She won a Grammy in 1968 for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocalist. For Gentry, the song is the equal, in music, to Harper Lee’s, To Kill A Mockingbird, in literature. Both writers had some successes with other creations but are defined by their signature works. See a photo of Bobbie Gentry below:
Today, after close to the 50th Anniversary of its release, “Ode to Billie Joe” is one of the most popular songs of all time. I have taken notice of Gentry’s iconic song because my birthday is also on June 3. Though it was released at the beginning of my excitement about the music of the British invasion groups, I stopped to listen to “Ode to Billie Joe” every time it was played on the radio, and that was often! Today, I chose to listen to its catchy instrumentation, vocal phrasing, and off-beat rhythms. You can watch a YouTube version of Gentry performing “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967, on the Smothers Brother’s television show, by opening the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EPzqAGsh24
There are many great popular musical offerings, but few give the intriguing lyrics of Gentry’s classic song.
With my current interest in literature and poetry, I have started to focus on how the lyrics of some popular songs stand up to the scrutiny of lyrical analysis. After a fresh review of the lyrics,”Ode to Billie Joe” did not disappoint! It is a narrative told in the first person from the point of view of the family’s only daughter, who is somehow linked to the mystery of Billie Joe MacAllistar. The song’s haunting instrumentation supports the mysterious and unresolved questions about Billie Joe’s death. There has been some speculation that the story was based on a news event of a missing girl who Gentry read about in a Mississippi newspaper. Whether this is the case or not, it is not that important. What is more significant is to try to experience “Ode to Billie Joe” and try to decide what the songwriter is trying to tell us. I will offer a brief discussion about what I think is important about the song after showing looking at the lyrics:
“Ode to Billie Joe” by singer and songwriter, 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 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, 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
And mama said it was shame about Billie 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 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 ‘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.
Commentary There are many discussions about Gentry’s song that focus on questions raised by her unresolved lyrics. The most thorough are on www.jjmccullough.com/billyjoe.htm. On this website, “J.J.” writes that Gentry spelled her character’s name “Billie” on the album but the record producers quickly changed the spelling to “Billy. J.J. divides the website into the categories of facts, unresolved questions, themes, theories, comments from Gentry, and reader’s questions. I will summarize what J.J. wrote and offer my own conclusions.
Facts – The song takes place in Mississippi and all the spots mentioned in the song, including Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge, do exist. The family that discusses Billie Joe’s death during a meal lives in a rural setting and has forty acres of farmland to plow. Their daughter talked with Billie Joe after church. She is unable to eat after her mother informs her of the news report that Billie Joe jumped off of the bridge. Her family is apparently unaware that she had some type of relationship with Billie Joe. The family’s preacher, who visited their house, said that he thought that he saw a girl who looked a lot like [their daughter] on Choctaw Ridge” right before Billie Joe was found dead. Receiving news of the suicide was only a passing piece of conversation for the rest of the family. After the mother spreads gossip about the story, they are more concerned about passing the black-eyed peas, biscuits, and apple pie than on continuing to discuss the tragedy. They dismiss the incident as being unimportant by saying “nothin’ ever comes to no good on Choctaw Ridge.” This dialogue possibly suggests that the family members thought that Billie Joe was from a lower socio-economic class than they were. They are also more concerned about getting on with their own life and work than in dwelling on Billie Joe’s death. One year after the tragedy, the narrator-daughter still thinks a lot about Billie Joe: She picks “flowers up on Choctaw Ridge and drops them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Questions – Why does the young preacher, Brother Taylor, decide to visit the narrator’s family right after Billie Joe’s death? Does he know or suspect something about their daughter’s relationship with him? The most important question is, “What was the relationship between their daughter and Billie Joe?” Another interesting question is, “What did Billie Joe and the girl throw off of the bridge?” Most commentary assumes that Billie Joe committed suicide but I don’t think the lyrics prevent the possibility that he was pushed off of the bridge.
Theories – The likely possibilities are that Billie Joe committed suicide and that this act was associated with the possibility that he and the girl were having some sort of highly involved relationship. Maybe they found out that she was pregnant. The androgynous name of the subject of the song does not allow readers to conclude that Billie Joe was a male. If not, then, they might have had a lesbian relationship. Or, perhaps they had an inter-racial relationship. We don’t know the race of either the narrator or Billie Joe, but we can deduce that the father, for any of the above reasons, would not have approved of their relationship.
One year after the incident occurred There is no mention of a baby in the lyrics. But, we can wonder if the sister might have had an abortion. Or, perhaps the abortion happened before Billie Joe jumped off of the bridge. It was, then, guilt and grief that made Billie Joe MacAllistar jump. There are many other speculative theories provided on J.J.’s website. However, any conclusions that the readers have reached are only their personal opinions. After a thorough analysis, I have concluded that the lyrics are not capable of providing more clear answers.
Themes and Gentry – J.J. mentions that Gentry didn’t want to engage interviewers or answer questions from fans about her song. However, J.J. also reported that Gentry did say that the “main theme of Billie Joe was simply about death and dying, and the ways in which we can be indifferent to the suffering of others.” If that is what Gentry said, then her concise explanation is good enough for me! Her lyrics are like a post-modern ballad. They are disturbingly prophetic and foreshadow the cold-hearted society she might have imagined in the future. Of course, in 1967, the songwriter could never have anticipated the amount of suffering that present-day consumers are constantly informed about, or about the high degree of indifference that people now display after receiving news of mass killings and suicides. Today, we barely have time to recover from the shock of some cruel and senseless deaths before we are immediately barraged with another incident even more shocking than the last one!
Gentry’s has written a provocative narrative, that though it is short, it is filled with as many suspenseful questions as a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but without the master detective here to unravel its many enigmas. By now, Gentry would have probably heard about all the same tragic news of senseless deaths as we have. However, with her level of sensitivity, it is not too surprising that has she stopped writing and performing music many years ago.
Murray Ellison received an M.A. in Education from Temple University (1973), an M.A. in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015) and a Doctorate in Education from Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. He is the Chief Editor of www.LitChatte.com, an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and volunteer tour guide at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog or at firstname.lastname@example.org. or see him at the Poe Museum (sse photo below):