Ode to Billie Joe: the value of the hidden

Yesterday was June 3rd, or as Bobby Gentry describes it:

It was the third of June, another sleepy dusty delta day….

That is, of course, from her magnificent ballad “Ode to Billie Joe,” a song as much about what’s unsaid (or unsung) as it is about what’s said. Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge; the singer, a young (how young?) woman, had been seen with him earlier, throwing something off that bridge.

Here’s she is performing the song on a 1968 BBC TV show:

There’s a whole world in this song. Many things are described, but the immediate event is a lunch on a blistering hot day, and the lyrics reference food as much as what’s happened to Billie Joe. The phrasing is clearly done by a native, someone who knows the world she sings about. Lines such as,

Y’all remember to wipe your feet


Ol’ Billy Joe never had a lick’a sense; pass the biscuits, please

sound authentic because they are. I grew up hearing those same phrases, and when I hear the song, I can picture the table, the family, hear the flies buzzing and smell the mixture of cooking and sweat. I can also feel the tension between something that everybody knows, and something that no one would ever mention aloud. All families have secrets, but the worst ones are those right there in plain sight, like the black-eyed peas on the table.

But what’s fascinating about the song, and probably the big reason it remains popular after all this time, is that it doesn’t answer its own mystery. We never learn why Billie Joe jumped, or what he and the narrator were throwing off the bridge. There’s mention of a young preacher who has (predatory?) eyes on the narrator, and who spotted her and Billie Joe after church. Why did he “drop by” on the very day Billie Joe died?

Mysteries are powerful things. D.B. Cooper would be just another hijacker were it not for his total disappearance. Bigfoot would be a common zoo exhibit if we’d ever found one. Remember how Twin Peaks lost its mojo once it solved the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder? Even Bobbie Gentry, the song’s composer and performer, is her own mystery, having totally vanished from public life in 1981 (here’s an article about where she might have ended up).

People have tried to solve the mystery. In the 1976 movie based on the song, he jumped because (gasp!) he had a homosexual encounter, certainly the worst thing people of the time could imagine. He’s also played by whiny Robby Benson, a sort of 70s Zac Ephron, and the object of his encounter is none other than James Best, soon to be immortalized as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on the Dukes of Hazzard. As directed by Max Baer (yes, Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies), it’s an overheated, Absalom! Absalom! mess, a caricature of Southerness, and everything that Gentry’s song is not. An indication of its quality? Unless you were around when it came out, you’ve probably never heard of it.

Ode to Billy Joe movie

And it exists simply to make obvious what is most powerful when left oblique. If the song had simply said, “My boyfriend killed himself today because I told him I was pregnant” (one of the many possible interpretations of the story), it would be just another country song. Certainly if it said, “My boyfriend killed himself because he got busy with his boss down at the sawmill,” which is what the movie claims, it would’ve had its five minutes of notorious fame, and then been filed away next to Ray Stevens’ “The Streak.”

So appreciate the mysteries for what they are, and the almost infinite possibilities the best ones provide for speculation. We’ll never know what motivated Billie Joe McAllister that sleepy dusty delta day, but we can sure have fun trying to figure it out.

(thanks to Jane Burns for inspiring this.)

3 Comments on “Ode to Billie Joe: the value of the hidden”

  1. What an excellent read! And everybody knew that song when it came out. I love this well crafted line: All families have secrets, but the worst ones are those right there in plain sight, like the black-eyed peas on the table.

  2. One of the reasons I love your writing is your passion for music, which equals mine. On a side note, my wife actually performs this song.

  3. This song has always intrigued me as a child and I can remember questioning my aunt about it. I am in the fourth draft of my novel- which attempts to answer all those questions. So excited to see someone else as intrigued as I am!

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