The Mystery of Ode to Billy Joe

In 1967 country singer Bobbie Gentry released a single entitled Ode to Billy Joe. The song's breezy bluegrass tune and memorable chorus made it an instant hit, and today it remains one of the most popular country songs of all time.

The song has remained popular for another reason, however. The lyrics of Billy Joe are haunting and mysterious, and recount an odd Southern gothic tale of a young man's tragic suicide. The story is noticeably incomplete however, and the listener is left with many unanswered questions.

This page is an attempt to summarize the controversy.


Lyrics

The following are the complete lyrics to Ode to Billy Joe. The song is approximately three minutes long. There does not appear to be any truth to the rumors that the song was originally longer but was trimmed for length, and thus that vital lyrics were "cut."

Also note that the spelling "Billie Joe" is often substituted for "Billy Joe," with the former spelling actually being used on the album cover.

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 we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door
"y'all remember to wipe your feet."
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

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."
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 Billy 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 of apple pie, you know it don't seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

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 '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.

Annotations

Facts we can deduce from the song:

1) The story takes place in Mississippi. Choctaw Ridge, Carroll County, Tupelo, and the Tallahatchie Bridge all exist in real life. The opening line suggests the speaker lives in the Delta region of the state, which is located in nothern Mississippi.

2) the speaker's father does not care much for Billy Joe, her mother is more sympathetic, and her brother was apparently a friend of his at one time.

3) the speaker apparently had some degree of sympathetic relationship with Billy Joe. She was talking to him at church and was seen with him on the bridge. When she finds out he is dead she loses her appetite (unlike the rest of the family) and later spends "a lot of time" throwing flowers off the bridge in what is clearly some sort of memorial tribute.

4) the family of the speaker is largely oblivious to the relationship she had with Billy Joe, and for some reason she has no interest in bringing it up.

Unresolved questions from the song:

1) What did the speaker and Billy Joe throw off the bridge, and at what time did this event occur? The fact that Brother Taylor visited the speaker's house on the same day Billy Joe died does not necessarily mean he saw the girl and Billy Joe throwing the thing off the bridge on this day as well.

2) What degree of relationship did the speaker and Billy Joe have? Was it sexual? Ages are not given, but it is suggested that the speaker is at the very least a teenager. She lives with her parents, but is capable of doing hard labor in the field. Her brother is old enough to get married and move out of the house. The brother recalls putting a frog down his sister's dress- a rather immature stunt- but this likely happened years ago and is being remembered out of nostalgia.

3) The key question- why did Billy Joe commit suicide, and to what degree was this related to:
-his relationship with the speaker
-talking to the speaker at church the Sunday prior
-he and the speaker throwing something off the bridge
-visiting the sawmill the day before

Themes

Regardless of the unanswered questions of the song's plot, the song nevertheless contains several themes. The first is simply that of a "period piece" of Southern life in the early 20th Century.

The other theme is a darker one, about the indifference we often show towards the loss of human life. The speaker's family talks about a young man's suicide in the most nonchalant way possible. The line "Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense/ pass the biscuits, please" is a great example. Aside from the speaker, no one seems to know or care much about Billy Joe. His death is just a source of dinnertime gossip, like the weather.

Theories

1) The most common theory is that Billy Joe and the speaker were indeed involved in some degree of romantic / sexual relationship that was kept hidden from the speaker's family because the father strongly disliked Billy Joe. This in turn is commonly interpreted as meaning the couple had an unplanned child at some point, and they threw the baby off the bridge together rather than deal with this manifestation of their illicit relationship. The guilt stemming from the murder of his own child later in turn caused Billy Joe to kill himself.

Some have gone even further and speculated that because the child was unwanted, it was either stillborn or aborted in some haphazard fashion, and then quietly "disposed" of off the bridge to hide the proof that the pregnancy had ever occurred. I've heard some point to the relevance of the "Child, what's happened to your appetite" line as a subtle key to this. Loss of appetite commonly occurs after giving birth. But it also commonly occurs when someone is depressed.

2) Another theory is that Billy Joe and the speaker are different races. This is consistent with the song's Southern theme and may explain the speaker's motivation for keeping her relationship with Billy Joe hidden. The food being eaten at dinner may be intended to represent traditional black Southern cuisine, and the mother's use of the word "child" to address her daughter is a rather distinctly African-American expression. The speaker similarly mentions picking cotton, which is likewise a chore that has been primarily associated with Southern blacks since the days of slavery. An inter-racial relationship during the period in which the song is set would clearly be a social taboo, and may have led the speaker to break up with Billy Joe, who proceeded to commit suicide. The unwanted child theory can be similarly strengthened by this premise, as a mixed-race baby would be even more socially unacceptable than an mixed race romance.

3) A third theory says that Billy Joe's suicidal tendencies were well-known to the speaker. The thing thrown off the bridge was thus a gun, after she successfully convinced Billy Joe not to kill himself. But then later he jumped off the bridge anyway, proving the failure of her efforts.

Is there a "correct" answer?

It depends. There are two "official" sources you can cite.

1) According to the 1975 movie

In 1976 Warner Bros. made a movie inspired by the song, entitled simply Ode to Billy Joe. It starred Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister and Glynnis O'Connor as the speaker, who was given the name "Bobbie Lee Hartley."
The film's tagline was "What the song didn't tell you, the movie will" and thus purported to provide an authoritative conclusion to the mystery.

The movie has been criticized for taking too many artisitc liberties and introducing too much new information that is not even hinted at in the song. Wikipedia provides the following plot summary:

Set in the early 1950s, the film explores the budding relationship between budding relationship between Bobbie Lee Hartley [the song's narrator character] and Billy Joe McAllister.

Hartley and McAllister struggle to form a relationship despite resistence from Hartley's family, who contend she is too young to date. They develop the relationship, despite the odds in their way. One night at a party, however, McAllister gets drunk. In his inebriated state, he makes love to another man dressed in drag, though later he reveals he knew what he was doing. He bids an enigmatical goodbye to Hartley. Overcome with guilt, McAllister subsequently kills himself by jumping off the bridge spanning the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi.

[...]

The object thrown from the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll; throughout the book and film she voices her concerns that she will always remain a child. The ragdoll being thrown from the bridge marks the point at which she begins moving towards adulthood.

The reference to the "book" refers to the 1976 movie novelization.

2) According to Bobby Gentry

Bobby Gentry has historically remained coy about the meaning of her song. According to her, the main theme of Billy Joe was simply death and dying, and the ways in which we can be indifferent and oblivious to the suffering of others.

In a 2002 interview with the Florida-based TCPalm.com website, Herman Raucher, the screenplay writer of the Billy Joe film, recalls his encounter with Gentry as he tried to figure out the song's meaning:

INTERVIEWER: [You wrote] the screenplay for the Deep South, song-inspired film Ode to Billy Joe. How did that come about?
RAUCHER: There’s an actor and writer and producer and director named Max Baer, whose father was the world [heavyweight boxing] champion. And Max called me because
Summer of ‘42 just knocked him out, and he said, I’ve got the rights to Ode to Billy Joe. Now, you have to understand that Ode to Billy Joe was, at that time, the largest selling record in musical history.
I said, ‘Max, what the hell do I know about
Ode to Billy Joe?’
He says, ‘I want you to come out here and meet with Bobbie Gentry - I’ll pay your way out here.’
I said, OK. ... Max and I go to meet her, and I ask her what does the song mean?
She said, ‘I made it up. I don’t know what it means.’
I said, ‘You don’t know why he jumped off the bridge?’
She said, ‘I have no idea.’

He proceeds to explain that since the song apparently lacked a "true" meaning, he simply made up his own storyline to explain the lyrics.

Bobbie Gentry is still alive, but has largely fallen from the public radar screen. She has never published an autobiography, so today it is difficult to determine if she has ever made any more authoritative statements on the meaning of "Billy Joe." There is no reason to deny Raucher's story. Many musicians, notably John Lennon and the Beatles, have frequently made similar statements indicating that their songs' lyrics don't have a firm meaning and it is instead up for the listener to determine their significance.

It does seem a bit odd to me that Herman Raucher would travel all the way to meet Gentry in person just so she could tell him the song has no meaning. Couldn't a simple phone call have sufficed?


Other language versions

La Marie-Jeanne by Eddy Mitchell

French reader Philippe tells me that a french blues singer, named Eddy Mitchell, wrotte and sang a French version of "Billy Joe" entitled La Marie-Jeanne, that became a hit in its own right. "Except for some minor changes like using 'grapes' instead of "cotton" and some others to make it "Frenchier", Eddy kept the general feeling of the song the best he could," Philipe writes.

Jon Andreas Visa by Siw Malmkvist

A reader identifies this single as a 1960s Swedish cover of the song and says "the lyrics are interpreted in a rather straightforward way to Swedish, the location changed to an unspecified rural district in Northern Sweden. Some minor adjustments have thus been made, Jon Andreas comes from a place with meager soil ("mon"), the Church is a cafe, the frog is a snowball etc.

Het was een Gewone Dag by Conny van Bergen

According to Dutch reader Martijn this is the Dutch version of Billy Joe, sung by a "not very well known singer" from the Netherlands. The title translates to "it was an ordinary day."

"Conny's translation is very loose to the original," he says, "but it kept the atmosphere of nonchanlance. The mystery from Bobbie Gentry however is lost in my opinion."

He also provides the lyrics. Apparently Billy Joe is called "Jan Van Buren" in Dutch.

Spin-offs and parodies

Bob Dylan- Basement Tapes (1975)

Bob Dylan is said to have hated Ode to Billy Joe. His song Clothesline Saga (track nine of the Basement Tapes album) was clearly an attempt to create a sarcastic parody of Gentry's original song. Clothesline is a largely nonsensical, go-nowhere song that tells the story of a kid who is helping his parents hang up the clothes to dry. Along the way, he and his parents have dull back-and-forth conversations. Here's an excerpt:

The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed,
Mama, of course, she said, "Hi!"
"Have you heard the news?" he said, with a grin,
"The Vice-President's gone mad!"
"Where?" "Downtown." "When?" "Last night."
"Hmm, say, that's too bad!"

The song closely mimics much of the style of Ode to Billy Joe, and features many similar expressions and phrases. Unlike Billy Joe however, the lyrics of Clothesline contain no deeper meaning or mystery, and are instead excruciatingly mundane. One gets the impression Dylan regards the Billy Joe song as enormously over-rated.

Austin Lounge Lizards- Small Minds (1995)

The Austin Lounge Lizards are a Texas-based country / bluegrass band who sing largely humorous, satirical songs. Track one on the Small Minds album is called Shallow End of the Gene Pool. The song tells the story of a guy who is mentally and socially inept in every conceivable way. At the end he decides to explore genetic engineering as a way to "fix" himself. The final line in the song is "And that's why Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," sung in the exact same manner as the Bobby Gentry song. This line makes no sense within the context of the song, and appears to have only been included as a sort of nonsensical piece of musical filler. The two songs have sort of similar tempos, which makes the line "fit" musically.

 


Comments or additions? Email J.J. at jjmccullough@gmail.com

LETTERS

Thanks for some great analyses. Let me add a few additional thoughts.

Your analyses doesn't seem to address the reference to... that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, who'd be pleased to come by for dinner next Sunday....or to the significance of Chotaw Ridge.

I'd suggest that Chotaw Ridge is the "wrong side of the tracks" from where nothing good ever seems to come, even according to the more sympathetic Mama. That's where Billy Joe lived, and that's where word of his death comes from.

Although the narrator has had a fling with Billy Joe, the fun-loving, childhood friend that she always had a crush on, she feels familial and social pressure to drop the relationship with Billy Joe, in favor of someone of better breeding or social position...like the nice young Preacher.

Unfortunately, she is pregnant with Billy Joe's child, which would, of course doom her prospects. So she talks Billy Joe into helping her get rid of the fetus by tossing it off the bridge, and then she rejects Billy Joe so she can pursue more desirable, upscale marriage prospects.

Billy Joe is heart-broken and commits suicide.

Upon the realization of where the road that her "deal with the devil" has taken her, the narrator is heartsick and cannot go through with her plans to pursue the nice young preacher, or any other substitute.

As in all good morality tales, her father (who should have paid attention to what was happening to his daughter rather than simply bad-mouthing those folks up on Chotaw Ridge and concentrating on his farming) dies, the mother who pushed her daughter inappropriately is plunged into lonely depression and the narrator is left in purgatory to contemplate her sins for the rest of her days.

I'd attach no significance to the fact that Bobby Gentry, the author, claims she doesn't really know what the song means. She either
(1) bought the rights to the song and is passing it off as her own, or
(2) is cynically trying to keep the mystery going, since it lends more interest to the song's popularity, or
(3) Thinks the meaning is so obvious that if you don't get it, she isn't going to tell you.

Note that when Paul Simon was asked in a television interview what he meant when he wrote "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" in the song "Mrs. Robinson" (part of the sound track fin the 1967 film The Graduate), Simon insisted that it meant nothing and that he had just put it in as a lark "because it fit". Yeh, Right. The significance of the lyric should be fairly obvious to anyone of even moderate literary sensibilities, but Simon is not about to appear on public television lecturing about the inner meaning of his song, when he's desperately trying to appear cool (rather than geeky and professorial) to the mainstream audience that buys his music.

If any of this is helpful, please feel free to add it to your web site.

—Harry

* * *

Notes on Ode To Billie Jo:

The frog down the back at the picture show had to have been later than the early 1930s as movies were not common in rural southern areas until that time and later.

The talking after church bothers me.... It sounds to me like they are talking in the churchyard. In the rural south whites and blacks did not attend the same churches.

Her brother gets married and they buy a store in Tupelo...this totally negates the share cropper idea, as they could not possibly afford such an extravagant
lifestyle as sharecroppers. Even if they owned the farm....which by the way wasn't all that small as the father had 40 more acres to plow, they were not too well off.

I am inclined to think (as a poet myself) that the whole thing is contrived out of bits of personal history of the writer, southern memories, and put together in a rhyming mode to make a whole. Thus the song is allegorical rather than truthful.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak on the meaning of the song.

—Brad

* * *

Just read your page on this almost-anniversary of the tragic Tallahatchie Bridge incident.

It seems to me, all the questions about the "plot" miss the point. Thus the inventions - book, movie, discussions, - are terribly unsatisfying.

As you point out, the family is oblivious and incurious of the girl's grief. The girl herself does not enlighten us. You use the word "nonchalant" and it is close, but it does not quite capture it. In fact, it misleads.

Directly parallelling the death of Billy Joe is the death of Papa, told in the same "nonchalent" tone. Papa's death is not even mentioned until after the news of Brother and his new wife buying a store in Tupelo. Mama suffers deep, silent, inexpressible grief, and she doesn't wanna do much of anything. She is lost to the family and to life, it seems.

The girl is also in deep, inexpressible grief, the sort of grief we hear in old English folk songs. For example,

... At the age of sixteen, he was a married man
And at the age of seventeen he was a father to a son,
And at the age of eighteen the grass grew over him,
Cruel death soon put an end to his growing.
Growing, growing,
Cruel death soon put an end to his growing.

And now my love is dead and in his grave doth lie,
The green grass grows o'er him so very, very high.
I'll sit and I'll mourn his fate until the day I die,
And I'll watch o'er his child while he's growing.
Growing, growing,
And I'll watch o'er his child while he's growing.

The details are not the story in this case. The story is in the telling. We don't know the brother's name and it is not important. We don't know the something thrown off the Bridge, and it is not important. We didn't know Mama loved Papa so much that her happiness would be drawn into the grave with him, but we learn it is true, at least for this short while.

Implacably, a year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billy Joe. And it seems life goes on, unstopable and uncaring, with Brother and his wife moving away and starting their own lives, leaving Mama to her grieving.

But one cares about Billy Joe, though her love and her grief are not uttered in the song. And it seems in that eliptical little ballad, much of America understood that grief, as the hearers of much older folk songs understood the grief in the songs of their times.

Perhaps the repeating motif in the story helps: As the conversation over dinner is oblivious to Billy Joe's tragedy, so life trundles past the death of Papa, oblivious, and so flows the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge, oblivious to lovers and flowers.

The deepest grief is silent. Billy Joe touched that grief in many people, touched it without disturbing its silence.

—Mark

***

I find the theories as to the meaning of Ode To Billy Joe somewhat far fetched. I found my self having to listen closely to the song for the first time for something I'm working on, and I came away with a far simpler explanation.

Clearly, the narrator is forbidden to see Billy Joe, which is why she cannot even speak of it to her family. They cannot even imagine that she would do such a thing, which is why the report that Brother Taylor saw "a girl that looked a lot like you" does not seem to lead anyone in the family to believe that it was, in fact, her.

The line about throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge does not have to refer to a single object. And, given that, the last verse solves that part of the mystery.

So here is my take on the song. The "wrong side of the tracks" idea is very much to the point. Race need not enter into it. The narrator and Billy Joe meet and fall in love, even knowing that it is forbidden. She can only meet with him when she can get away from her chores, and sneak away. They meet at the bridge, which divides the good and bad parts of town. There they spend what precious time they have throwing flowers into the water, and making wishes for a future together that they know they can never have. Finally, Billy Joe can't take it any more. Because of the circumstances, the narrator only learns of his suicide from the conversation at the dinner table.

Incidentally, Shallow End of the Gene Pool was written and originally recorded by Emily Kaitz, without the last line referring to the Tallahatchie Bridge. You can find my post of the original version on the blog Star Maker Machine at http://sixsongs.blogspot.com/2009/04/april-fools-shallow-end-of-gene-pool.html

—Darius Rips

***

Hi there,
Really enjoyed reading yours and other peoples' thoughts on the meaning of Ode to Billy Joe and thought I'd throw my own decipherings into the mix.
 
I don't think that the song is a statement about how we dismiss the death of our kinsmen; the singer's relationship with Billy Joe was a secret.  He wasn't that well known to the family.  Obviously he was a friend of her brothers when he was younger, but we all know how time and circumstance can allow friendships to drift apart.
 
I think the song is a statement about our inability to be honest about our feelings, even with our nearest family.
 
The singer is or was obviously in love with Billy Joe at some point, but she still does not speak to defend him the day after his death when her father says 'He never had a lick of sense anyway'.
 
From the contents of the meal at the table; black eyed peas, and the job the singer had been doing; picking cotton, I summise that the singer, or writer was black (I know Bobby Gentry was white).  Billy Joe McCalllister does not sound like a black man's name (I know there are exceptions to the rule).  At the time and in the place the song was set, a relationship between a black and white person would have been forbidden.
 
The singer is young, which is why she is referred to as girl.
 
The family is religious, hence the mention of church and the mother's encouragement of a relationship between the family and the 'nice young preacher'.  She is trying to pair the singer and the Preacher off.
 
The Preacher will not accept that the girl he saw with Billy Joe on the bridge was the singer, even though she looked like her because he is aware that the singer and him might end up together and he would have to acknowledge her part in the suicide which would impact on his reputation.
 
I imagine that the 'thing' thrown from bridge was likely to have been a stillborn or miscarried child.  Billy Joe and the singer discussed it after church on Sunday (I know that blacks and whites went to separate churches at that time, but the discussion happened 'after' church, possibly in the graveyard?
 
The singer is not overly sympathetic towards her mother's grief at losing her husband and mentions her brother's situation first because she feels resentment about the relationship her and her mother had and her inability to comfort the singer during her hour of need.
 
The singer throws flowers in the river as penatence for her weakness in denying her and Billy Joe's relationship and for the child she may have lost.

[what follows is a second letter from the same reader]

The singer may not have been black; her father had forty acres and her brother and Tom were friends when they were younger, but there was a reason that the singer and Billy Joe couldn't see each other.  Nothing good ever came from the Ridge, so Billy Joe could have come from the wrong side of town, it's not important.  What is important is that it had to be kept secret, whatever the reason, she couldn't have told her parents.
 
I would like to write a conclusion.  The song is now fairly old.  The singer would now be a mother herself.  How would she feel if her daughter introduced her to a boyfriend/husband she did not approve of?  Would she repeat the mistakes of her parents, or would she take the 'Good enough for you, good enough for me' attitude and lay the past to rest?  Would she share the secret of her past with her daughter?
 
Would they finally throw a wreath off the bridge and conclude the story?
 
I know there is no answer, but I thank Bobby Gentry and your site for giving me the opportunity to consider the possibilities, the setting and how we relate to each other and the power of a good song to provoke thought and emotion.
 
— Lozz Mitchell
Australia

[The same reader also wrote a fictional ending to the song, which you can read here]

***

The Mississippi River Delta is the spot in Louisiana where the Big Muddy meets the Gulf of Mexico.   The Mississippi Delta region is some 300 miles North, in north-western Mississippi State where the Yazoo River meets the Mississippi.

The commenter who noted that rural blacks and whites do not attend the same churches is absolutely correct.  Further, it is highly unlikely that poor whites of the age and area would care about some black kid jumping off a bridge, not even enough to mention it with "pass the biscuits, please", and "never did have a lick of sense" doesn't fit in either - black boys of the day and age were not expected to have a lick of sense.

(Sixty years later, poor whites *still* don't interact with poor blacks).

— Randall Head

***

I  read with great interest your interpretation of the song 'Ode to Billy Joe'.
 
One of the things that always occurred to me when I heard the song was that the preacher was motivated to mention they were throwing 'something' off of the bridge.  To me, the throwing something is equally as relevant to the preacher as the fact that he saw them together.  If he was close enough to 'think' it was her and Billy Joe, he'd have some idea of what they were throwing.  Petals, rocks, sticks and other common objects wouldn't elicit a 'throwing something off of the bridge'...they probably wouldn't be remarked upon at all.  The preacher has no idea what they are throwing off the bridge, but it stands out in his mind enough to mention it...his curiosity is piqued.
 
In my imagination, vivid as it is, I always thought that the two of them were disposing of a body.  Why they needed to dispose of a body is a mystery.  It could be anything; an unwelcome suitor or someone who was on to their illicit relationship are good possibilities.  He/she is killed, probably accidentally, in some sort of confrontation.  They dispose of the body by throwing it in the river, and Billy Joe is spooked and runs off or believes that they have been observed (perhaps they saw the preacher when he was looking at them).  People's belief that he had drowned himself would allow him to get away.
 
The narrator doesn't mention in her own fate save to say that she spends a lot of time on the bridge.  My feeling is that she is pining away for Billy Joe, hoping to see him again when she is more mature and independent, or perhaps bemoaning the fact he is gone for good.

— Nicholas Ross

***

This is indeed a fascinating song, and you are lucky to have so many intelligent readers with so much insight.  Mark's comments were also quite beautifully written and touching.
 
My take on the song is similar, but I think people are reading too much into some details and missing others. 
 
1. Going to the same church, and the kids playing together and going to the same picture show is proof enough that nothing racial is intended. The hard work they do, plentiful food and the brother buying a store suggest they are a farming family, likely of middle-class resources.  
 
2. The father's comment sounds indifferent rather than hateful toward Billy Joe.  Perhaps he did not think Billy was the smartest or most responsible kid in town and suicide was his proof that Billy lacked sense.  A hard-working family man in the South of that era would see suicide as weakness rather than mental illness.
 
3. The most mysterious line for me was always about the singer and Billy throwing something off of the bridge.  Perhaps they had done something wrong together and were hiding evidence, or it was Billy who went off the bridge at that time -- an uninterested passer-by seeing them together on the bridge and continuing to pass might only hear a splash and notice something from the corner of his eye.  Did she say something that made him jump, or did she push him?
 
4. The mother not being interested in life after her husband died is an obvious parallel to the singer's feelings after Billy Joe's death.  She is the only one counting time since that event.  Her mother's timeline is frozen at the death of the father and her brother's new life is beginning as married person in a new town with a store there.
 
Overall, I do suspect that it just a vivid vignette of ordinary life and the world going on when individuals are hurt.
 
— Sam Brown 

***

Wondering why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge - or what was being thrown off the bridge - is missing the sheer brilliance of the song. Only a true conspiracy theorist would think that there are answers to these questions that somehow haven't surfaced after all these years. If Bobbie Gentry says she doesn't know, there's no reason to doubt her.
 
Far more interesting than the unsolved riddles is the hierarchy of knowledge that's going on: The speaker most likely knows the answer to these questions, but there's no way we're going to find out. At the same time, we have the insider knowledge that something - we don't know quite what - was going on between her and Billy Joe, unlike her clueless family. So we're stuck in the middle. To be able to convey that in a few short rhyming verses is pop music genius.

— Mick

***

I play in a bluegrass band and we have just added Ode to Billie Joe to
our repertoire. I thought I would look into what the lyrics mean and
came across your site.

I've read through all the various theories and find most of them a bit
far fetched. Not only that, but they do not even address all the
clues in the song and at the same time add stuff that isn't even
mentioned.

The death of Billie Joe is clearly a shock for the narrator and causes
her to lose her appetite (she presumably ate breakfast). Father is
indifferent to the boy - I don't think he actively dislikes him, he
just thinks he's a bit dim. So I don't buy the theories that he hates
him. I don't buy the secret pregnancy idea either. Too complicated.
The brother doesn't dislike Billy, they were friends and shared pranks
together. He also finds it odd that Billy Joe committed suicide
having seen him at the sawmill earlier in the day. Clearly at the
sawmill Billie Joe wasn't giving any indication that he might commit
suicide, in fact, quite the reverse.

Here's what really happened.

The narrator and Billie Joe were indeed having a relationship but it
hadn't been going on long. They were spotted talking together after
church not only by her brother, but also by Brother Taylor. He
follows them and sees them sharing happy times together, throwing
flowers into the river. They are in love, and Billy Joe is happy, as
the narrator's brother sees at the sawmill. However, Brother Taylor
does not approve of the relationship and decides to have it out with
Billy Joe, either because he doesn't think they are a suitable match
or more likely because he himself harbours feelings for the narrator.
They fight and in the struggle Billy Joe falls from the bridge.

Everything else fits. The preacher comes round, possibly to try to
explain and a leaves a clue for the narrator that he knew about the
relationship. Papa dies and mama goes into a depression. Not only
has she lost a husband but her daughter it heartbroken and even
preachers can't be trusted. The narrator goes back to doing the thing
that reminds her of when she was happiest, throwing flowers off the
bridge.

— Geoff Berrow

***

1. Blacks attended our southern church. Like at the movies, they set up in the 'loft'.
2. In the rural south everyone picked cotton. Seems some of your readers think that after 1865 when slavery ended, no cotton was picked.

3. Black eyed peas, cow peas, field peas and cornbread was eaten by everyone.
4. If they were eating biscuits they were on the richer side of middle class.
5. My family, both paternal and maternal, were sharecroppers who eventually bought their own land, sent children to college and made a good life for themselves.

6. My paternal grandmother had relatives that were of mixed race. They took in the children and raised them as their own. They worked the fields with my paternal grandfather who was an abandoned child who also worked on their farm. They were life long friends.

7. Geoff Berrow says it best.

— Lorne Quebodeaux, from southern Louisiana

***

I listen to the song every year on the 3rd of June. Thanks for posting the interpretations. A few thoughts about things in the song and some of the ideas offered by others:

"Billy Joe never had a lick of sense" — it's not surprising that he'd do a damn fool thing like jumping off the bridge. Maybe it wasn't suicide; maybe he was trying to retrieve whatever they had thrown off.

"he and Tom and Billy Joe" — The name Tom may indicate that he is Becky Thompson's brother.

"five more acres in the lower 40" — they had more than just 40 acres; they also had a bailer and presumably a tractor, at least.

Brother Taylor would have been called in at the death of Billy Joe and probably brought the news to Mama, perhaps because of the sighting of the girl who looked a lot like her. He apparently wasn't too interested in finding out at the time.

— Steve Torstveit

***

Thanks for the website discussing the meaning of the song "Ode to Billy Joe."
 
Being from the rural south (Texas) and of the generation covered in the song I feel I have a little insight to the song, though that hardly makes me an authority.
 
I agree with one of the other posters that conjecture about the song is over-thought.  It is entertaining to think that the song might have been about a mixed race relationship, but the lyrics don't seem to suggest that the narrarator was black, and it was generally true in 1967 in the south that black and white people attended separate churches.  In addition a song about a mixed race relationship probably would not have played well to a country music audience in 1967.  I was still marginally controversial when Spike Lee made the movie "Jungle Fever" and Madonna sang a song and did a music video several years ago.
 
No one seems to touch on the subject of teen suicide that the lyrics of the song discuss.  Teenagers are very prone to emotional problems at their time of life, and many stem from relationship problems.  Most of the previous posters seem to feel the song was near a Romeo and Juliet theme, however.
 
I think the lyrics simply suggest that Billy Joe was in love with the narrarator, but she was not romantically interested in him.  That theory is supported by the seeming indifference that the family had towards Billy Joe's death.  If Billy Joe committed suicide due to a romantic rejection, then the narrarator would react with shock and guilt, but not be crushed as the song suggests.
 
This hypothesis doesn't address what Billy Joe and the narrarator might have thrown off of the bridge, which is a great deal of the mystery.  The fact that "it" was thrown off the bridge, then later Billy Joe jumped off the same bridge is a huge tie and carries a great deal of weight.  I don't feel the fact that they were throwing something off the bridge would have been included unless the author of the lyrics intended for it to mean something, but unless Jeannie C. Riley discloses that meaning it will remain a mystery.
 
—Terry Sikes
Terrell, TX

***

Even as a schoolboy I imagined that the object thrown from the bridge was a still-born child. But that doesn't explain Billy Joe's suicide entirely satisfactorily. One (more innocent) possible scenario is that the narrator broke-off a relationship with Billy Joe, and that one or them was seen hurling a ring (or some other token) off the bridge. The narrator's throwing of flowers after Billy Joe's suicide might then reflect her sense of responsibility and guilt for what had happened.
 
That we continue to speculate about what lies behind the song, as if it reflects real events, is a measure of the invasive power of its lyrics!
 
— Rod Macleod

The ring was perhaps one of those tungsten wedding bands.

***

Hello,
 
I would like to offer a few comments about the interpretation of Bobbie Gentry's song.
 
For me, the character I am most interested in is the preacher, Brother Taylor.  After all, if he weren't mentioned in the song, we would merely be led to the conclusion that the narrator is saddened by the death of her friend.  It is the preacher's interjection about something being thrown at the place of death that has gotten everyone worked up about this song.
 
Did Brother Taylor see Billie Joe and the narrator talking at his church on Sunday?  If so, when he saw them together again at the bridge, did he figure that his chances of courtship were slim as long as Billie Joe was alive?  A conspiratorial explanation would have Brother Taylor confront Billie Joe on top of the bridge, either revealing his knowledge of what was thrown or telling Billie Joe that the narrator's family would never approve of their companionship.  Perhaps the preacher might even push Billie Joe off the bridge, then rush over to the narrator's house to tell the mother the sad news of the boy's passing.
 
The narrator doesn't mention Brother Taylor a year later, so we can only assume that the courtship, if there was to be any, had fizzled.  What's frustrating -- but also, what's fun -- is filling in the backstory of these characters.  The fact that the preacher introduced circumstantial evidence is what has led us to conjecture about the relationship between Billie Joe and the narrator.  But was it pure coincidence that he happened to pass by the bridge and see the two youngsters?  And might he know what they were actually throwing, but chooses not to tell the mother in order to protect the narrator?

— Scott Karlik

***

What sort of person am I, I assumed that she had killed Billy Joe, she was a strong girl.  Jumping off bridges is not going to kill you, unless the water is not very deep, or you get stuck in the mud at the bottom, or you might hit something like part of an older bridge. But if she did kill him she might then tend to stay away from the bridge.
But the song seems to be about the way life is treating her, not what she did.

— Billy Ray

***

Out of the clear blue, in the middle of the night, I thought of this song, so I got up and scribbled the name down to do some curious research. I have never given any thought to the song "Ode to Billy Joe"... not that I can remember.

Being a teenager in 1967, growing up in N.Y.C., and not liking country music at all, but the song received so much air-play that most really had no choice but to listen to the song - not to mention I had a girlfriend at the time that loved the song.
Anyway, I came up on this site, and read all the analyses, speculations, conjectures, etc... and I saw that no one asked about what happened to Billy Joe's body? It was "muddy water", but I'm sure it should have washed up on the shore, or somewhere... .right?

I think one of the better theories is the one that someone wrote about Billy Joe and the "nice young Preacher" fighting...couldn't have been that nice a preacher - fighting over a girl, pushing a man off a bridge and never saying anything?

I've never seen the movie nor have I found the lyrics - I read that this originally was a seven minute song that was cut down to about 3 minutes? I wonder what the other lyrics say...

We'll never know the "truth" because maybe there is no "truth" to be known (maybe this is just some old "wives's tale" passed on and things added and things omitted and someone finally decided to capitalize on it....make a song out of it... and a book??? and a movie??? Capitalism at it's best is another theory (hahah)

Living in China now, sometimes I reminisce about my young days in NYC... I guess Ode to Billy Joe was very much part of my youth, great memories, great time of the century to be alive - so much change happening during that time, but other than capitalism- that song, just does not fit the time and music being played on the East coast.....

Well, thanks for the interesting reading at that site.

Best regards and good luck with your quest for an answer to a rhetorical question (in this case, a song).

— Franco

***

As far as what gets thrown off of the bridge, the answer is pretty obvious. It's an engagement ring! Billy Joe asks the narrator to marry him. Although she does love him, she has to say no because she knows that her family would never let her marry a boy from the wrong side of the town/bridge. Also, Billy Joe couldn't worked at the sawmill and asked his supervisor for an advance on his wages so he could buy this ring when he's seen there in the song. When the narrator refuses his proposal, he later commits suicide. Sounds workable right?

— Mike Parker

***

I want to add some points to the story if possible,first i think harry is right on the third assumption that the story is so obvious,we should get it ourselves. She loved billie joe and he loved her they were meeting on the choctaw ridge and maybe collecting flowers,but surely no baby is involved. Because she is shaken by the news not before the news and it is so obvious that she while trying not to show what she feels ,cannot eat from the news. She was not expecting this, and when writing the song and later on interviews she implies that it was so important for her but not for her family.

Still she didn't understand why he jumped and thats is the exact case,she still wanders where they used to collect flowers and not to show throw from the bridge together,she still does that asking herself why he jumped and keeping his loved memories! It is obvious on the line that nobody gives attention: "a year has come 'n' gone since we heard about billie joe" (i am still waiting for news).

The song belongs to her,the story is true, billie joe is not black, she loves her too much, she still doesn't know why he jumped so she writes this song to him in fact like a letter,
and the final lines are for billie joe,(i know you hear me billie joe come on this is what happened after you have gone ,where are you? why did you jump. i told you i was gonna come but father gave me some extra work to attend to so could not leave the farm and could not come.i still drop flowers like we used to do off the Tallahatchie bridge.
i miss you)

(and this song is about my love,if somebody else interprets the lyrics in a hypothetic stupid way,i will not speak about it,because everything is so obvious)

burhan(i think she was right,oddly enough she released the song exactly when i was born,and i was so curious about the song i had to find what it is about,until i read wikipedia i had the nonsense interpretations aswell,but when i read her interviews and what she said and realized that song is important for her and it is true,i realized that she still honors his memory,thats it!
sorry but life is like that sometimes,things we dont understand happens and we cannot do anything about them,besides living.

— Burhan Sevsevil

***

I happened upon your page about this song and thought that you might consider the change of meaning when the initial double quote in the third verse of the lyrics is moved up to the third line, from the fourth. The writer's comment is in the first two lines and then she gives the quote from her brother, at the dinner table, in the last four lines.

While it is plain enough that the narrator's father didn't think too highly of the dead boy, his estimation of "never had a lick o' sense" was commonly used on anyone not in agreement the speaker's outlook. Also, is was far more likely that after-church chatting broke down into same-sex groups. It would cause a lot of gossip to see a boy and girl talking together in such a setting. As a side note, Billie Joe could not have been too socially-distant from the narrator and her family or they would not be attending the same church (an obvious reason that Billie Joe could not have been "colored," to use the polite word of that time).

That "visit" by Brother Taylor is fraught with innuendo! He is the obvious source of the "news" and may well have had his eye on the narrator as his future wife. With the demise (for whatever reason) of a rival for the her attention, the preacher was, seemingly, eager to move in and stake his claim. "Mama" certainly thought he was "nice" enough to invite to dinner after church the coming Sunday.

The tale told in the final lyric is considerable: Her brother saw no future working his dad's farm (as a servant to his dad, for quite some time, obviously) and bailed out to become a merchant. The effect this rejection had on his dad seems to have left him despondent, maybe depressed, enough to succumb to a viral infection. With her way of life totally destroyed, "Mama" was on her way out, as well. The narrator spent her time now reliving the actions of her days with Billie Joe, picking flowers to drop off of the bridge as they chatted and dreamed about future possibilities. Billie Joe didn't fit in because he, obviously, spent too much time with girls and not enough being "manly." That lad ain't got a LICK o' sense!

— Bob Dayle

***

I enjoyed all the comments and analysis on the lyrics.  Some interesting insights a Northern suburban boy didn't catch. 
 
    I always assumed 1) they were both white and 2) whatever they were throwing off the bridge together was something religiously taboo.  The preacher was making the mother aware that he knew something she and the daughter wouldn't want public without making a direct accusation he could not prove. The preacher saw them "on Choctaw Ridge" and at the bridge, which to my mind must be separated by enough distance that the preacher must have had some curiousity to follow them. Mama passes on the comment at table without further discussion right after noticing her lack of appetite.  Mama, rather than being oblivious, clearly has ideas or suspicions that the singer is/was up to something.   The comments, apparently off-hand, in combination send a pretty clear message: I know you're up to something/know what happened.  I too assumed the object thrown off the bridge was a fetus/stillborn/child as the most powerful symbol of religious taboo.  Now the singer has lost in quick succession a child, her lover, the secret and her mother's respect.  No wonder she's lost her appetite.
 
    I'd like to comment on another aspect no one has mentioned.  I was too young to really be involved in the 60's, but I do remember much of the tenor of the times.  This song resonanted for a group of people with no real connection to the specifics of the song's setting.  Not to be trite, but it was a tumultuous time.  How many young women in the 60's had young lovers taken from them by the Viet Nam war, drugs, the counter-culture movement, or some other cause, only to have the family reaction be "He never did have much sense"?  I bet a lot of girls in those years spent time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge.

— John Plunkett

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