It was the other day, June 3, 2015 to be precise, when Paul Morris, a fellow MFA Goucher graduate, reminded me of Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” Forty-eight years ago, on June 3, 1967, Gentry penned her masterpiece. How could I allow decades to pass before revisiting the rhythmic, haunting lyrics depicting the day when Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Gentry and I had a reunion of sorts. I began listening to a YouTube performance of her “Ode to Billy Joe;” over and over, perhaps twenty to thirty times. It was as addictive as my Oxycodone pain-poppin’ pills that kept my back from breaking apart in the hills of southern Illinois, some five-hundred miles north of the Tallahatchie Bridge. Maybe the passage of time has blessed me with a deeper understanding of Gentry’s lyrical gem. Or perhaps years of therapy has graced my psychic with insights never experienced before.
Ode to Billy Joe
by Bobby 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, Billy 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 Billy 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 Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy 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
How can a song spur my imagination with so many unanswered questions: What did that girl and Billy Joe MacAllister throw over the Tallahatchie Bridge? Perhaps a baby? Were they lovers? Maybe Billy Joe had sex with a gay man in 1967. Could that be why Billy Joe took his life? And then there was Papa who said, “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits please.” Was Billy Joe’s reasoning, or lack of it, that simple. So many questions, and many more. Ms. Gentry, tell me why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and oh, by the way, pass me the blackeyed peas.
People have asked Bobby Gentry to explain the true meaning of her song. And to their surprise Gentry said there is no hidden meaning in “Ode to Billy Joe.” If anything, she once said, it’s about a family of manikins sitting around their dinner table talking about Billy Joe’s suicide. The narrator obviously knew Billy Joe quite well, so much so that she couldn’t eat a bite. When Mama told the family about Billy Joe jumping off the Tallashatchie Bridge, they ignored the narrator’s feelings and asked someone to “pass the biscuits please,” followed by Papa telling Mama to “pass the blackeyed peas.”
Foreshadowing is a literary technique of indicating or hinting what might come forth in the next sentence or so; perhaps sooner than later, or maybe not at all. This is how a great storyteller adds mystery and suspense that turns a mundane story into a page burner. I’ve watched some great movies and questioned the director’s intent. Oftentimes I was left to fill in the blanks, wanting more.
Of course I love the pulsating rhythms, the poetic prose, and the mystery of Gentry’s song. But that’s not what moved me so, grabbing my soul and giving it an attention-getting twist. It’s the faceless manikins sitting around the dinner table that day in Carroll County Mississippi. Hell yes, those people drive me fucking crazy. I’m a victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse. And I’m not alone. Most of my fellow abuse victims share similar feelings: Manikins don’t care if we’re left to wallow in our misery; hey, maybe the rapes were our fault; don’t air our dirty laundry; perhaps they feel uncomfortable talking about such things, and possibly lack the emotional depth. And worse yet, what if they don’t believe my story? Now that drives me so fucking crazy that I want to join Billy Joe MacAllister and jump off the Tallashatchie Bridge.