Tallahatchie Bridge, Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi

Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry

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Billie Joe never had a lick of sense
Pass the biscuits, please Read full Lyrics
Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are about to present the facts of what happened in and around the vicinity of Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi, on the day of April 22nd, 1960. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We're just kidding, of course. To this day, there is not a shred of evidence to back up the events of the story told by Bobbie Gentry's 1967 smash hit "Ode to Billie Joe." To the amateur sleuths and wanna-be Agatha Christies out there: we're sincerely sorry to bust your bubble. But that's the point of Southern Gothic; to make you wonder.

Oh, sure, even though Bobbie Gentry is not her real name (Roberta Lee Streeter holds that honor), she really did grow up in Mississippi, and Choctaw Ridge, Carroll County, Tupelo, and the Tallahatchie River are all real places in Mississippi. There are, in fact, seven bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, at least two of which are within reasonable distance of Choctaw Ridge. It would seem that all you have to do is go dredge the river for the body.

The bridge over the Tallahatchie River<br>Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tallahatchie_bridge-Hwy_7_Mississippi.jpg">Gary Bridgman</a>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsThe bridge over the Tallahatchie River
Photo: Gary Bridgman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
But, see, there isn't any real body. And, if you insist on taking every word of the song for the Gospel truth, then you also have to allow for the fact that the whole town is talking about the suicide of Billie Joe MacAllister, including the whole family buzzing about it around the dinner table. Presumably, nearly-identical conversations are going on all over town at every family's dinner table. The preacher, Brother Taylor, knows about it. This is not a cover-up. Everybody was seen in public, and the river would have already been dredged for the body, the body buried, and anything else that was thrown in the river would have been found, too.

People seem to have a hard time accepting the fiction of this song. In a world where novelists routinely fabricate hundreds of pages of made-up characters and events, why is it so hard to accept that a five-verse song is fiction? But then, Southern Gothic is like that sometimes. It's meant to be compelling and intriguing.

Seeing as how Goth culture gets so much attention and following in the United States, it is ironic that the Gothic style of that culture reflects the European flavor of Gothic, while we have our own home-grown flavor of Gothic which largely gets ignored. Southern Gothic is a fiction style that takes classical Gothic character and situation types and superimposes them onto Deep South American culture, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A dash of the grotesque is mandatory. Works which fit into the Southern Gothic genre include novels such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, and films such as Deliverance and Wild At Heart. Most American horror is Southern Gothic style.

Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" is a very artful work of the Southern Gothic style. The story implies much, much more than is told, leaving the listener with more questions than answers by the end. Clearly, something is not quite right, and furthermore it is going on under everyone's nose, with only the singer knowing the rest of the story and keeping her secret. That's how Gothic works; you don't show the monster. You keep the door locked and suggest that there might be a monster behind it. When Sinead O'Connor did her cover version, she punctuated the line "and she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge" with the sound of a baby crying is missing the point.

Because you were already imagining something even more dreadful.

Pete Trbovich
February 11, 2010
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Comments: 50

  • Teach from Fort Russell, IlGreat song, great song -but almost everybody I know took it as fiction; which it is. Then the movie with Robby Benson came out (pardon the pun) in 1978 and I’m almost positive it would be banned in today’s Woke world. Roger Ebert said at the time: Now I know why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge. BTW- I just passed through Mississippi a week ago and saw the sign for the Tallahatchie bridge and immediately thought back to the song. Lastly, I’ll never see June 3 as anything other than a sleepy, dusty, delta day!
  • Bob from Southern CaliforniaI grew up not far from the Missouri River. So when I heard this song I always pictured the "Tallahatchie Bridge" as something like the Pony Express bridge in St. Joseph or the ASB in Kansas City, a huge bridge several dozen feet above a massive river. I've been trying to figure out which of the several bridges over the Tallahatchie was the specific Tallahatchie Bridge mentioned in the song, and a) I can't find any point at which the Tallahatchie River is terribly near Choctaw Ridge, b) in a lot of spots calling the Tallahatchie a river is being pretty generous, c) none of the Tallahatchie crossings I looked at were particularly impressive or looked like they'd be all that dangerous to jump off of; a lot of them are those sort of bridges where you have to look close to notice that it's actually a bridge and not just a section of road with a guardrail for some reason. Does anybody know what bridge Gentry had in mind?
  • Charlotte Walker from Littleton, CoThe book was fiction and so was the movie they made from the book. My English teacher used this song as an example of subtext. Her family was just having a normal dinner, while the girl in the song is silently grieving for her love. The subtext is that everyone was ignoring her feelings because that's just something that Southerners don't talk about. "Mama said to me, 'Child, what's happened to your appetite? I've been cooking all morning and you haven't touched a single bite...'"
  • Scotch Tom from ScotlandA backing line from Bobby Gentry's song Reunion, on her second album:
    "I heard this mornin’ they dragged the Tallahatchie River and found poor Billie gone"

    She had 7 studio albums, wonder if there are any more clues hidden away.
  • Psicomom from CaliforniaIt’s interesting how people miss details. READ the lyrics. Billie Joe McAllister was a boy. Becky THOMPSON, not Johnson…….

    I have always thought that it was a body that was thrown into the water, possibly someone Billie Joe McAllister unintentionally killed, and needed to hide his crime. The lyrics suggest that he couldn’t live with what he had done and killed himself. A crime of passion…possibly?
  • Ken Bonetti from Boulder, ColoradoThe idea of a baby thrown off the bridge is not that far-fetched. Unwanted pregnancy in a church-going rural community might induce a horrible act of panic and desperation, and then for some, fatal remorse afterward.
  • Anomar from Lexington TnThis has always been one of my favorite songs and I've raised my daughter on it. Every year we manage to call, text or email each other on the 3rd of June, and sing the whole song. Last year we went to "a" bridge over the Tallahatchie close to Money MS and tossed flowers. We're doing it again this year. And it always surprises me that nothing has been done to commemorate that town and the Emmet Till tragedy. It's directly off the Blues Highway and would be a boon for the area.
  • AnonymousCould this be a parody of the killing of Emmett Till? Supposedly he was thrown from the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, whose water flows into the Tallahatchie. Just suggesting.
  • James from Minneapolis, MnAm I the only one that always thought that "something" thrown from the bridge was a baby/fetus?
  • Gary from Okmulgee, OkTammy Wynette also did a cover of the song. No real importance here; just saying.
  • Kevin from Bellingham, WaNowhere in the song does it say he killed himself or that he died...it just says he jumped off the bridge. On further study, the bridge at Money MS is only 6 meters/ 18 feet to the river which is 50 feet deep. Hardly enough to kill a person. The song is a classic case of much addoo about nothing. It was hot, and he went for a swim!
  • Kit Laughlin from On Board Anika J, Qld, AustraliaSuch an interesting perspective. I had not heard of "Southern Gothic style" until now, but this resonates with many other things, for me. Thank you. And, perhaps the more important thing: how good is Bobby Gentry's singing! Simple, and we all know simple is hard. She is amazing.
  • Paula from Missouri To Nancy from Georgia, the brother with lower case b is how your family member is identified. Brother Taylor capital B is how church ‘family’ is addressed as a name. Billy Joe had to be a boy as he and two boys (brother) included put a frog down her back at the show.
  • Nancy from GeorgiaI can't believe that nobody has looked at part of the lyrics more closely. In the verses where she refers to her brother, it's with a lower case "b".
    When she talks about "Brother married Becky Johnson, they bought a store in Tupelo"; notice the uppercase "B". Ther also an uppercase "B" when the mother referred to the preacher "Brother Taylor".
    I believe she is saying that the preacher "Brother" was actually the one who married Becky Johnson.
    Of course, this is my interpretation. I could be wrong. Only Bobbie Gentry knows.
  • Robert from FloridaAs a young child in 1967 I thought Billie Joe was a female..Bobbie has stated the meaning of the song was how the family reacted to the death. How Southern life at that time was presumed . I thought the movie was terrible and was surprised Bobbie Gentry went along with it. Billie Joe presumably was a young girl distraught and kills herself. By foolishly killing herself even the mother refuses much concern. Only the young daughter is feeling sad about the death. The family is more concerned about local gossip.
    Sanctimonious self righteous to a fault.
  • Sgt Pete from Carrollton Ms ( Carroll County )Well, of course someone would throw a bad name on our State by bringing up racism !
    Emmit Till and such !
  • Melinda from AustraliaMmmmmm, all the theories about this song. I jus love catching up on them occasionally. Cause it’s just such an intriguing song. And Bobbie Gentry is an intriguing singer too. Cause she grew up in the area she sings about.
    Many thanks to the people from Mississippi and in the area, who have contributed to comments here.

    The sad fact always is though.
    Is to discover ....it’s not a true story.
    Just a story Bobbie Gentry made up. But Mississippi, in that era would have many similar stories. That are true. Or half buried. That are even more bizarre.
    If you know any Mississippi people. Put them them here. Cause they may end up as a song or novel.
    The singer Helen Reddy sung songs like Ode To Billy Joe.
    In the 1970’s. And ‘ Angie Baby ‘ by her, is a good example. And ‘Delta Dawn’and ‘Leave Me Alone’. Story songs about real life characters. And I agree Ode To Billy Joe is up there, with the classic and funny song ‘Harper Valley PTA’ by Jeannie C Riley. And ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton. Are these singers also Southern? I think so.
    I love how they write drama filled songs.
  • Roy from Suburban PhillyJust a great song that local AM played the s--t out of in the summer '67. To hear it now I pop in one of my customs from 1967..Or hit YouTube.
  • Melissa from TennesseeThis song is very beautiful, haunting and intriguing. Why can't we just leave i at that? Geez. It is her art and it shouldn't be questioned.
  • Lisa from Fort Riltey , Kansasthat is a Very Great song !!! my mom , dad & Grandma & Grandad always"s played this Beautiful song !!! I wish there was a Squel to it also , I am Choctaw on my dads side 2 times ....Lisa
  • Shari from CincinnatiSpoiler ALERT! He jumped off the bridge because he was having sex with that "nice young preacher" He was gay which was not good back then
  • Anonymous from UsI suspect the song is really about the 14 year old boy, Emmett Till, his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, after he was beaten, mutilated, and murdered on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till was spending the summer with his great uncle, brother-in-law, and cousins, and had entered the Bryant Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. What happened at the store is disputed. Bobbie Gentry was born July 27, 1944, so she would have been just 11 years old, I'm sure it made a big impression on her, even though she was not directly involved in the tragedy.
  • Sandra Gsrner from Westpoint Mississippi I wish they would make a sequel to the movie now and try to find out what happened after 50 years!I saw the movie when it first came out in 1976! Ever since then I wanted to go to Tallahatchi and see that Bridge!Miss Bobbie Gentry thanks to you you made Mississippi famous again besides Elvis Presley and even nade a movie about Mississippi! Wold give anything to meet You!
  • Bill from Raleigh, NcI recently heard this song again and was hooked into it ... and still am. In reading possibly-true trivia about the song, I heard the original was 11 verses that was nearly cut in half on the released version. I'd love to see the original lyrics of all 11 verses!
  • Piecatlady from Walton County, GaThanks, Bill Bruton, for the fascinating info. Turner Classic Movies just showed the 1976 film based (sorta) on Bobbie Gentry's song, my first time seeing it. Still wonder what REALLY happened (what Ms. Bobbie had in mind). I've heard she said she had no idea). The movie's explanations seemed off-whackedy there, although the two young actors (Robbie Benson and Glynnis O'Connor) showed true teenage angst about a couple of issues (premarital sex and homosexuality) that nowadays don't seem too big a deal to mainstream America. Anyway, you answered my question about the "real" bridge and about Bobbie Gentry's early life. They say she just won't do any more shows or records (CD's anyone?) now. Hope she decided to take the money and run and just enjoy a comfortable life. The song is fresh and compelling after all these years.
  • Daniel R. Drown from OhioCan it really be 50 years? The decades have been kind. Over 50 million records, scores and scores of covers and immortality as an important slice of Americana.Bobbie's other great story song too, has achieved immortality. Fancy has passed the 25 million mark on a score of covers. The Reba McEntire cover alone has over 600,000 downloads and has been featured on albums with sales of over 15 million copies. Both story songs made last years Rolling Stone magazine issue of the top 100 country songs of all time. A feat only equaled by Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.
  • Tammy GoreGood reply Bill from Winston Salem
  • Bill Bruton from Greenwood MississippiNot to be too technical but like all us southern folk she has a legal name and a nick name. Her legal name is Roberta but in school in Greenwood her nick name was Bobbie Lee which is a typical girl's name from Mississippi.
    She attended North Greenwood Elementary school when I was there. Her family lived on E.Claiborne St. just across the road from what was then called the Tallahatchie River in the 50's until you got to the bridge then it was called the Yazoo river bridge. I lived on Grand Blvd the street between the Tallahatchie River bridge and the Yazoo River bridge. The bridge in Greenwood is not the bridge in the movie but looked almost identical to the movie bridge in Roebuck Ms just 6 miles away from Greenwood. However I'm sure Bobbie was singing about the bridge in Greenwood which was just across the street from our elementary school but has also since been replaced because it was falling down also. Even though I was born in Greenwood in the 40's our family was originally from the Tupelo area and if you track Bobbie's history her family was originally from Chickasaw County which is close to Tupelo and Choctaw Ridge Mississippi. She also mentions Carroll County in her song which is just East of Greenwood. After her parents divorced she lived with her grandparents so her migration would be from Chickasaw County close to Choctaw Ridge to Carroll County to Greenwood. However I noticed on her school records in Greenwood that her father is listed as Robert (Bob)as parent instead of her grandparents so don't know if she was living with her dad at that time or not..
    We all loved Bobbie's music and wish her well....
  • Dave Miller from New ZealandFinally - the truth! It's a song, dammit. But it's excellently constructed, and full of *real* meaning about how mean and insensitive people can be, to their own kin, without thinking.
  • Bill Rhodes from Winston Salem, NcWhich begs the question about why Mr. Baker won't tell why his secretary had to leave this town of "Harper Valley" -- another great southern town hit from the mid 60's.
  • Jerry Wexler from Greenwood, MississippiI was in the movie. I was an extra in several scenes. Max Baer was the director and the crew, motley at most, came from the dregs of California. There was a lot of trouble behind the scenes. Fights and drug busts daily. I believe the making of the movie would have been better than the movie.
  • Bill Cotton from Greenvile MississippiMy daddy let me drive his 1962 Buick Lasabre on the Tallahatchie bridge when I was 9 years old back in 1966. I backed the rear wheels over the edge on the west end of it and Daddy just laughed about it, drunk as a skunk. We had go call Daddy's best friend, My Uncle Floyd, to come out there with a dragline to get the car back on the bridge. I know that ain't much to tell,but it's a memory I'll carry to my grave. And cherish.
  • Faye from Chicago,ill I learned of this song when i was 10 years old. As an adult my family would have me sing your song. I love your song.
  • Daniel from Toledo, U.s.aBobbie orginally wrote both her big hit story songs, Ode to Billie Joe and Fancy, as short stories before setting them to music. The shorts and all the original rough drafts are house by The Un. Of Mississippi in the Faulkner room. Sales of both hit songs are stunning. O.T.B.J has over 100 covers and 50 million in sales. Bobbie sold 5 million copies alone in 1967 between the single and album.Fancy has passed the 20 million mark on a dozen covers but thanks in lare part to Reba McEntire's hit version in 1991. The song made it on her Greatest Hits album 2 with a whopping 10 million units sold.
  • Ijw from CydoniaHer real name isn't Bobbie Gentry it's actually Roberta Lee Streeter.
  • Kurt from OhioBobbie Gentry has never said what it was that was thrown off the bridge, and she has said those who focus on it are missing the point of the song. It is a song about indifference to what has happened and the irony that both the narrator and her mother are suffering losses but can't/won't share and discuss them with one another.
  • Will Johnson from CaliforniaAnyway it's not a *baby* since her *mother* would obviously notice if Bobbie were Preggers I would think, long before the baby was big enough to be required to be thrown off a bridge.
  • AnonymousBarbara: You are talking about the book, not the song.
  • Charles Ensley from Temple, TxHer real name is NOT Bobbie Gentry, it's Roberta Streeter.
  • C from Ksthe book was inspired by the song, not the other way around.
  • Barbara from Washingtoni thought the song was about a teen that was repeatedly violated by a prominent figure in his small home town.Unable to live with the shame,he kills himself.But first, I believe he kills the man who raped him through out his childhood, and they threw a gun off the bridge.
  • Melinda From Australia from AustraliaIt would have to be coolest song Ive ever heard. I think people are so intrigued by it because young people all over the world have secrets like that. That the adults never about nor give a s--t about. Bobby Gentry said when interviewed that the song is more about the cruelty of the family and how they discussed his death without really caring. Mmmmm sounds like my family !
  • Lynne from OhioI read the book, years ago. If I remember correctly, it was a doll that was thrown from the bridge and Billy Joe jumped off the bridge because he was ashamed of being gay.
  • J D from PhillyHuh...I always thought that the mystery object thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge was an engagement ring.
  • Tim from Los AngelesSee the movie with Robbie Benson. It came out in the 70s.
  • John from IllWell something was thrownoff the bridge. and Bille Joe couldn\'t stand the guilt and killed himsef. the story teller goes into a profound funk we\'d call it depression these days wy ese would you spend you days picking flowers? I\'m of the mind that he accidnetly killed his mentaly handicapped brother who the family had been hiding in the celer all these years. the brothergrew up wanted to be free, but the family was to ashamed. So perhaps Bille Joe who grew up with gave him eternal freedom. then again since they only through one thing off perhaps it was his beloved hound dog and he just couldn\'t go on without him.
  • Nic from ChicagoBut WHICH two bridges are in reasonable distance from Choctaw Ridge? I am STILL have a hard time pinpointing the possibilities. I\'m taking a trip out next month and would really like to film these places for a paper I\'m writing on the psychological effects of media in \"reality\". (Such as people having a hard time believing that this is not real, or people not believing BRAVEHEART was real or even TITANIC.)

    From what I can tell, Choctaw Ridge is a HIKE from any of these places. The one from the movie was near Roebuck and there is a plaque there. Is that the best bet?

    I mean, is she still alive??
  • Jim M from PittsburghI just don't know. Pass the biscuits please.
  • Ian from Uksounds.comI like to think Harper Valley was not far away!
  • John Whapshott from Wiltshire, EnglandOne thing which really adds to the air of suspense and mystery is the string arrangement. It's very creative, not afraid to use dissonance to augment the effect of the lyrics - very much like a movie score.
    I don't know who did the score, but I hope they got recognition for it.
    I agree with the comment about Sinead O'Connor's version. These sorts of lyrics always work so much better when left to the imagination. A baby is the obvious thing to imagine, but it doesn't fit in with the rest of the song. I mean, why should Billie Joe wait until the baby was born? And if the singer were pregnant, what proof would there be that Billie Joe was the father? No, it doesn't make sense. The final comment is absolutely right - if it's not a baby being thrown off the bridge, it's something even more disturbing - whatever (or whoever?) that is...
    It's a brilliantly simple song, saying far more than a bare run through the lyrics.
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