I wonder how many people know the significance of June 3rd in the world of popular music? And this year, 2016 is the 50th anniversary of this important event.
Give up? June 3, 2016 will be 50 years since Billie Joe McAllistar jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. How many of you just heard a bunch of strings playing a descending scale?
I’m speaking of course of the Bobby Gentry song, “Ode to Billie Joe“, released in 1967, that starts with the lyrics “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day“.
I know what you’re thinking – “But wait! 1967 way 49 years ago, not 50!” True, oh shallow-thinking one, but consider this; if we assume the Narrator is speaking in 1967, we have to also remember the final verse begins, “A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe“. So the Narrator is telling of a tale that happened June 3, 1966, hence 50 years ago. Quod Erat Demostratum, which is Latin for “In your face!”
For those of you too young to remember when this song came out, or who have never heard it before, it is a slow, rather plaintive story told by a young woman. She relates how she and her brother got called into dinner from the fields on that fateful day, to be told in an off-hand way by Mom (after first making sure they wiped their feet) that she had just got the news that Billie Joe McAllistar had apparently committed suicide.
One of the things that makes this a memorable song, and a true classic, is the picture it paints of the rural life at the times. The discussion continues, but only as background to the more important things of farm chores and having dinner. No one seems to notice how the news has affected the Narrator.
Dad’s comment is only (as he passes around the black eye peas) “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please. He then turns immediately to more important topics. “There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.” Mama allows only as how it’s a shame, but also goes on to say that it “seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge”, so what do you expect, right?
Brother, after reminiscing about a frog-stuffing incident involving the Narrator and Billie Joe, gives us our first hints that there may have been a relationship between the two. Not only was there the frog and movies between them, but he points out that wasn’t the Narrator “talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?” Even Brother pauses to take care of the more important business of snagging a piece of apple pie before continuing about the last time he saw Billie Joe, showing more of the unusual and blasé dynamic at the table.
Note that June 3, 1966 fell on a Friday, so we know the Narrator saw him at least 5 days earlier at church. Then the plot thickens.
Mama finally notices the Narrator is not participating in the conversation much, but even so, her concern is more that, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite? I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
Then she drops the bombshell –
“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 Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Cue the descending strings again.
In the last verse, we get a quick summary of the last year’s events. Once again, the strange indifference to suffering – Papa dyin’ last spring is mentioned almost as an afterthought. Since Papa died, we see an echo in Mama’s behavior now and the Narrator’s then and since:
“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”
And again with the strings.
It is amazing the amount of discussion, controversy, conflicting theories, and demands for an answer that this song generated. I was a young child when it came out, but even I remember radio and tv hosts practically grilling Bobby Gentry over this. Everyone wanted to know just what the heck they were throwing off the damn bridge!
The song spawned a (bad) novel and a (even worse) movie, with endless psychological essays about the “southern death culture” and “latent homosexuality and bridge jumping”. Bobby Gentry herself was coy over this, which could mean several things: it’s just a song, stupid; it’s a personal story; if you don’t know, I’m not telling; she was cynically aware that keeping it a mystery would enhance its popularity; something else entirely.
So here is my completely uninformed opinion, my own personal WAG (Wild Ass Guess).
I believe the Narrator and Billie Joe had a secret relationship. Why secret? Papa clearly thinks he’s an idiot, and Mama thinks he’s from the wrong side of the tracks, ol’ Chocktaw Ridge. Plus, Mama definitely thinks her daughter should be spending time with “that nice young preacher”.
I think young Narrator got pregnant with Billie Joe’s child, and when she spoke to him at church, she told him they were going to have to do something about it. At some point between Sunday and Thursday (the nice young preacher never says when precisely he saw the central event happen), Billie Joe accompanied the Narrator either to a doctor, or perhaps a old woman on Chocktaw Ridge knowledgeable in such things, and had an abortion or forced miscarriage. They then proceeded to the bridge to throw the evidence into the muddy water.
Billie Joe at some point could no longer take the guilt over the baby’s death, and perhaps the Narrator had made it clear they could never be together as well, and decided to join his child. Now, the Narrator mourns them both, making her pilgrimages to drop flowers from the bridge.
Why this? I think it is the simplest explanation given the facts. Also, in the late 1960’s, abortion was an extremely taboo subject. It would have been a bold move to even suggest it in a song, so maybe that is another reason Gentry stayed vague when speaking of the “meaning” of the song.
The song went on to be the #3 song of the year 1967, and was nominated for 8 Grammys, winning 3 for Gentry and 1 for the arranger, Jimmie Haskell (he of the descending strings). Rolling Stone ranks it #412 in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. See what a little mystery can do?
So what’s your favorite theory?
P.S. – Next week an in depth analysis of “Louie, Louie” – hey, the FBI spent five years investigating whether the lyrics were obscene, so maybe we should take another look!
Photo By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29788743