It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay…
Today is June third.
I’ve posted before about the enigmatic ballad sung by Bobbie Gentry back in the sixties. It’s been more than 50 years since she produced the haunting song that had a whole generation wondering: What did Billy Joe Macallister really throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Half a century later, we still don’t know.
Though speculation ran from flowers to a baby, no one ever got Gentry to commit. In 1976, a film was made based on the song, it’s interpretation including a homosexual theme. Herman Raucher, the screenplay’s writer, asked Bobbie Gentry about the song:
“I said, ‘You don’t know why he jumped off the bridge?’ She said, ‘I have no idea.’”
What does it mean?
Even more intriguing is the meaning of the song itself. A handwritten page of Gentry’s original lyrics had been found. It began with a verse she never recorded and with the first line crossed out.
Sally Jane Ellison’s been missing since the first week in June.People don’t see Sally Jane in town any more. There’s a lot o’ speculatin’, she’s not actin’ like she did before. Some say she knows more than she’s willin’ to tell. But she stays quiet and a few think it’s just as well. No one really knows what went on up on Choctaw Ridge the day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. —University of Mississippi’s Archives and Special Collections
In the published lyrics, Sally Jane became the unnamed female narrator who was only present with Billy Joe throwing something off the bridge. What it means has more to do with the nature of the ballad than the story.
The story itself has many dramatic elements— Billy Joe’s apparent suicide and the bridge-tossing mystery— that its true meaning was lost on the youth of the mid-sixties, as it has been lost ever since.
It doesn’t matter what they threw off the bridge. More ominous than Billy Joe’s suicide, more menacing than the couple throwing something off the bridge, more heartbreaking than the lonely narrator picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge is the blatant apathy of the family to the tragedies going on around them. The true theme of the song is indifference.
“The song is a first-person narrative that reveals a Southern Gothic tale in its verses by including the dialog of the narrator’s family at dinnertime on the day that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” Throughout the song, the suicide and other tragedies are contrasted against the banality of everyday routine and polite conversation.” —Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe
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 BridgeAnd 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 BridgeAnd 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 BridgeAnd 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 BridgeA 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
Songwriters: Bobbie Gentry
Ode to Billie Joe lyrics © Spirit Music Group
In this photograph from the November 10, 1967 issue of Life magazine, Bobbie Gentry strolls across the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi. The bridge collapsed in June 1972.