Revisiting the Mysteries of Bobbie Gentry and Her Cultural Classic “Ode to Billy Joe”

I have been in the middle of another serious blog post, and as happens sometimes, I take a break to write about something lighter. I’m sure some will consider this post a frivolous waste of time and will prefer to ignore it.

I want to start by saying that countless writers have tried deciphering the mysteries of Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billy Joe.” My opinions are of course no better than anyone else’s.

Mississippi-born Bobbie Gentry exploded onto the American music scene in 1967 when her hit “Ode to Billy Joe” became Billboard’s #1 single in just five weeks without any promotion. The associated album reached the top of the Billboard 200, knocking the Beatles’ St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the top spot. At 25, Bobbie was an overnight sensation.

Her musical success continued into the 1980s, but the foundation of that success had been “Ode to Billy Joe.” For those who haven’t heard it, or have forgotten it, here’s a live version of the song (not lip-synced).

For those who’d like to see the written lyrics:

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 Bridge

And 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 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-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 Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And 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 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

Two reasons for the success of “Ode to Billy Joe”—besides the beauty of the melody, lyrics and the singer-songwriter herself—were (1) it wasn’t just a song, but a story; and (2) it left listeners puzzled about two mysteries:

  • What did the song’s narrator and Billy Joe throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?
  • Why did Billy Joe commit suicide shortly after?

Bobbie Gentry was asked about these mysteries many times, but always declined to answer. She said the song’s main point was the family’s insensitivity to the news of Billy Joe’s death, and what was thrown from the bridge was irrelevant. (But if so, why mention it in the first place?)

One of the first thoughts that came to many people’s minds, including mine: it was either a baby or aborted fetus. Here’s an interesting quote:

Getting her signed to Capitol was no easy matter, however. Former Capitol executive David Axelrod has recalled that the label’s head of A&R had qualms about “Billie Joe,” thinking it was about an abortion. Finally, though, Gordon got the green light to sign Gentry for one single. Four minutes and fifteen seconds long, the single was “Ode To Billie Joe.”1

There are several reasons why I don’t believe the object was a baby or fetus:

  • As far as babies go, a young farm girl couldn’t have concealed a pregnancy. And it’s obvious from the song’s lyrics that her family knew nothing of her romantic entanglement with Billy Joe.
  • Regarding abortion (illegal in 1967), the girl would have had to see a “doctor” for the procedure, which would have probably cost much more money than she had. (Bobbie Gentry’s own family was so poor that they had neither electricity nor plumbing.) Furthermore, the fetal remains would have been disposed of at the clinic. They would not have been given to the girl and Billy Joe to throw away. A self-inflicted (“coat-hangar”) abortion would have been dangerous and bloody.
  • Gentry herself told a reporter for Billboard that people had made many guesses about the object, “even a baby”2; she appeared surprised at the suggestion.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the song reveals the narrator to be a sensitive, loving person. Even a year after Billy Joe’s death, she is still collecting flowers to commemorate him. This is not the kind of person who throws babies off bridges.

Many other ideas were conjectured over the years about what was thrown off the bridge. Had they murdered someone? But news of a murder would have spread like wildfire through a small Mississippi town.

Was it drugs? Flowers? A draft card? A gun? But why would these cause Billy Joe to jump to his death? Gentry maintained her silence.

Two factors might serve to help clarify the mystery.

The Power of Editing

Back in the 1980s, I wrote a major article, for a national magazine, on the history of Hollywood’s anti-communist movies (of which there weren’t enough). Regrettably, the magazine’s regular editor was off duty. In charge was another editor, who slashed my article like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil wielding a machete. As I recall, he deleted the first five or so paragraphs, which were crucial to introducing the article. He started the edited post about a third of the way through, then seemed to randomly cut paragraphs and sentences, destroying all continuity, so that it read like gibberish. I asked myself: Did he spend more than five minutes on this “editing”? He appeared to have no concept of putting himself in the readers’ shoes, to see if the writing maintained clarity and logical transitions. Of course, the blame fell on me, since the byline read “by James Perloff,” while the editor was just a name on the magazine’s masthead.

This isn’t to deny that there are great editors—and writers who need them—it’s just to show the impact careless editing cuts can have.

As reported by Performing Songwriter and other sources, “The finished version of ‘Ode’ was over seven minutes long. Capitol edited it down to a more manageable four minutes.”3 (They also added instrumentals to the track, while retaining Gentry’s vocals and guitar work.)

There was a general rule that songs for radio shouldn’t exceed four minutes, although exceptions were occasionally made—including for Gentry, as “Ode” technically ran for 4:15.

Since Capitol reportedly can’t find the master recording, do we have proof that “Ode” was originally longer? We do. The University of Mississippi Archives and Special Collections has Bobbie Gentry’s original handwritten lyrics, though they have only published the first page. Here it is:

Although Gentry crossed out the first line, Capitol Records edited out the whole first stanza. For those who may have a hard time reading it, here’s what it said:

People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore
There’s a lot of 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 at Choctaw Ridge
The day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Is it just possible that the original 7-minute version of “Ode to Billy Joe” shed light on what was thrown off the bridge and why Billy Joe killed himself? And that when Capitol Records edited the song—whether intentionally or inadvertently—they removed those key elements? I’ve asked the University of Mississippi if they have more handwritten verses, but haven’t received a reply.

In any event, the unanswered questions about “Ode” undeniably proved to be marvelous marketing, giving the song mystique that has lasted over 50 years.

Hollywood Moves In

Many people think they know what the song was about because they’ve seen the 1976 film adaptation. This is clear from reading online reviews of the film. And look at what the movie poster said: “What the song didn’t tell you the movie will.”

However, although Bobbie Gentry was contractually given a large share of the movie’s receipts, she didn’t reveal the song’s real meaning to the filmmakers. As Gentry said of what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, “I’ve never told anyone what it was, not even my own dear mother.”4

The filmmakers thus had a free hand at interpretation. Of course, they had to stay pretty much within the boundaries of Gentry’s lyrics—otherwise they would have angered her fans and the movie would have flopped at the box office.

The man hired as screenwriter for Ode to Billy Joe was Herman Raucher, best known for scripting the 1971 film Summer of ‘42, about a 15-year-old boy who has sex with an older woman, whose husband had died fighting in World War II. (What a trooper—nothing says “patriotism” more than having sex with a war widow to bolster morale on the home front.)

Herman Raucher seemed an odd choice to write a screenplay about rural Mississippi. He was not a Southerner; he was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended New York University after graduating from high school. He married a Broadway dancer. He worked in advertising as well as playwriting and screenwriting. What did he know of rural Southern life, culture, farming, religion and manners? Perhaps he visited Mississippi to familiarize himself with the region before writing the screenplay; but if so, I’ve found no mention of it.

Possibly to add some Southern “authenticity,” the movie was directed by Max Baer, Jr., who had played Jethro in TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies—but Baer wasn’t a Southerner either; he was a native Californian. The film was shot in Mississippi, however.

Although I read several reviews of the movie, I decided I had better watch it before writing this post. My worst fears came true. The film had nothing to do with revealing the song’s mysteries; it was part of the larger Hollywood agenda of the 1970s which was striving to push new norms on the culture: sexual immorality, profanity, homosexuality, anti-Christianity, etc. So let’s take a ride through the movie.

Although Bobbie Gentry never gave a name to her song’s narrator, Raucher called her “Bobbie” to bolster his interpretation. Right after the opening credits, 15-year-old Bobbie exits her school bus and is met by Billy Joe MacAllister on the Tallahatchie Bridge. (It was not the real Tallahatchie Bridge, which had collapsed in 1972, but a similar-looking one.)

Less than a minute into the opening conversation, Billy Joe is already asking Bobbie about her bra size. So Raucher couldn’t even wait sixty seconds before focusing on female breasts.

I’ll notate moments in the film with minute-marks in parentheses, but these are approximations, not exact to the second. Some scenes overlap their minutes, of course.

(7-8) Brother Taylor is visiting Bobbie’s home. In the song he’s described as “that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor.” But in the film he’s an older man (played by 47-year-old Simpson Hemphill), and he turns out NOT to be nice. So already Raucher is betraying Gentry’s version of events. At her parents’ request, Bobbie reluctantly starts playing a Christian song on the piano for Brother Taylor. The film then immediately switches to Billy Joe and his friends drinking alcohol as they watch a stripper at a strip club.

(9) Bobbie, in bed at night, is reading aloud a steamy sex scene from Torrid Romance, essentially a pornographic magazine, though it is unclear if the magazine has pictures or only text. “My blood raced as he looked down at me, my heart pumpin’ so hard that my ample breasts came close to burstin’. I feared him, but I wanted him. I loathed him, but I love him. No, I screamed, no. And then I heard my own voice saying, yes, yes, yes.” (The scene goes on like this.) It’s not that I’m trying to be a prude here, but Raucher was clearly changing a love story into a lust story.

(10) It’s the next morning. Bobbie’s mother comments that she was up late last night. Bobbie says she was reading. Her mother asks “The Good Book?” Bobbie says “a good book.” Her mother laughs, hinting at approval of her daughter reading porn. They then talk about sex indirectly, and Bobbie asks how long her parents waited to have sex. Her mother answers, somewhat cryptically, and they laugh.

As an aside, in the song, Gentry sings “I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay.” But in the movie we don’t see Bobbie or her brother doing any actual farm chores, except for Bobbie briefly gathering eggs in a henhouse that seems to have no hens (not so much as a faint clucking sound). This suggests that neither writer Raucher nor director Baer knew enough about farm life to try portraying it. One gets the impression that New Yorker Raucher believed that on Mississippi farms in the 1950s, the main activity was discussing sex.

(15 on) In a rare scene not focused on sex, Bobbie’s father, driving his truck with Bobbie in it, gets into a confrontation with three rednecks on the Tallahatchie Bridge. Even though it’s daytime, the rednecks are all drunk as skunks, chugging hard liquor; all three are mean-spirited, and refuse to back up their own truck even though they don’t have right of way. Bobbie’s father’s truck stalls, and they ram it until it nearly falls off the bridge. I know there are real rednecks, but I mention this scene because it seems to be part of Raucher’s persistent negative stereotyping of Southerners.

(20:50) “a**hole”

(24) After her brother calls her intelligent, Bobbie tells him, “I’m a body, too, James, with desires, and somebody better pay attention to that because my blood is racing’ and my ample breasts are bursting.” Is this something a Southern farm girl would say to a sibling? She is quoting the porno magazine, of course.

(25) Now we’re in church and Brother Taylor is preaching a sermon against lust. Parishioners, including Bobbie’s father, are falling asleep (not that this doesn’t happen in churches). On completion of the sermon, which musters only two weak “amens,” Bobbie and Billy Joe are eyeing each other lustfully.

In real life, young Bobbie Gentry had been a soloist for her church choir.5

(34) Bobbie is outdoors and encounters Billy Joe. She tells him, “If you have any feeling at all for me, sir, and any hopes of squeezing my soft and pliant flesh this heady evening, you best stop and consider what I’m saying.”

(36) It’s nighttime, and Bobbie tells Billy Joe: “I think I’m either adopted or depraved. Of the two, I prefer depraved.”

(39-40) The two passionately make love, but get disrupted when they accidentally fall into a pond. Billy Joe says “Goddamn this baptismal pond”—another of the film’s gratuitous slaps at Christianity.

(44) Bobbie and her mother talk frankly about women’s breast sizes. More “typical Mississippi farm talk.”

(49) Bobbie, after getting off the school bus with Billy Joe, tells him: “Everyone on the bus knows you desire my body.” Billy Joe tells her, “I’ve been havin’ some fitful dreams in which you are so warm-blooded that if we do half of what we do in my dreams we’d be makin’ love with a regularity that would close this town.”

(51) Bobbie and Billy Joe spot Brother Taylor in his truck, and she makes demeaning remarks about the preacher.

(53 on) There is a local jamboree with country music, food, and plenty of small children present. But not only are people getting drunk, there are hookers complete with beds. The movie shows explicit sex scenes that do nothing to advance the story plot. Even the local sheriff, his uniform off (58), is shown having sex with a hooker—evidently an early contribution by Raucher to “Defund the police.”

After the jamboree, Billy Joe goes missing for about three days. He encounters Bobbie, and something has clearly shaken him, but he won’t say what. They plan to meet at the Tallahatchie Bridge that night.

(1:12) At night, Bobbie meets Billy Joe on the bridge. She is carrying her ragdoll Benjamin, which has been her imaginary companion since she was a little girl.

(1:15) During a moment of emotional tension, Billy Joe drops Benjamin into the river, almost by accident. This is seen from a distance by Brother Taylor, who appears to have been fishing. The ragdoll story was invented by Raucher, who perhaps thought losing the doll would symbolize Bobbie’s transition from child to sexually active teen.

(1:18) Bobbie and Billy Joe race into the woods and begin making love. But Billy Joe cannot finish the act. He confesses the reason for his mental distress: he’s recently had sex with a man, who he will not name. Bobbie tries to encourage him, saying he must have been drunk and not known what he was doing, but Billy Joe denies this. Bobbie tries to lure him to finish having sex with her, but he can’t and walks away.

(1:30 on) Bobbie is now the object of scandal. Everyone thinks she is pregnant, even though no one in the movie ever saw her so much as kiss Billy Joe. Her brother bawls her out, demanding that she get an abortion. But what woman is asked to get an abortion without even knowing if she’s pregnant? Furthermore, we learn that no one in town will talk to Bobbie’s mother. And in Raucher’s final slap at Christianity, Brother Taylor—that man Bobbie Gentry described as “nice”—has dismissed Bobbie’s father as a church deacon after 20 years of service. In other words, the preacher has punished the father, not for anything he did, but for his daughter’s presumed guilt, without any evidence. Actually, a doctor could have easily proven that Bobbie wasn’t pregnant, ending the “scandal.”

These developments contradict Bobbie Gentry’s song. The opening stanza clearly reveals that, even though the family had a passing acquaintance with Billy Joe MacAllister, there’s no hint anyone suspects the daughter has had a romance with him. The mother doesn’t understand why her daughter can’t eat after hearing of his suicide. And in Gentry’s final stanza summarizing events in the year since Billy Joe’s death, there’s no mention of a “scandal” impacting the family.

The film ends with Bobbie leaving town. As she crosses the Tallahatchie Bridge, suitcase in hand, she encounters Mr. Barksdale, who runs the sawmill where Billy Joe worked. He confesses to her that he’s the man who had a homosexual encounter with Billy Joe. He’s on his way to Bobbie’s house to explain the whole thing, but Bobbie convinces him that this will only make matters worse. She accepts his invitation to drive her to the bus station, and the movie ends.

Gentry’s lyrics did include her brother saying “I saw him [Billy Joe] at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,” but never indicated that Billy Joe worked there or had a homosexual affair with its owner. This was just Raucher embellishing the verse.

Finally, if Bobbie really left town, how was it possible that, as the song puts it, a year after Billy Joe’s death, “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”? Well, the movie did leave it open that she might return someday.

Conclusions

The Hollywood version of “Ode to Billy Joe” was intended to be a tool of social indoctrination, not a resolution of the song’s mysteries—that was only a “hook” to get people to watch it.

Despite Raucher calling his lead character “Bobbie,” neither the movie nor even the song were autobiographies of Bobbie Gentry. Although she did grow up on a poor Mississippi farm, she was raised by her grandparents, not her parents, who divorced shortly after she was born. At 13 she moved to California and was reunited with her mother. At 15, when Raucher depicts her making love with Billy Joe, she was about 2,000 miles from the Tallahatchie Bridge.

By the way, as you might expect, some today have suggested that the song’s narrator and Billy Joe were actually two lesbians. But the lyrics clearly refer to Billy Joe as “him.”

It has also been proposed that this was an interracial affair. But in 1950s Mississippi, blacks and whites didn’t attend the same churches, or sit in the same sections of movie theaters. “Billy Joe MacAllister” would be a somewhat unlikely name for a black person. And Mississippi was the state where black teen Emmet Till was lynched in the 1950s just for allegedly flirting with a white girl. So a black male having an affair with a white female would have been a death sentence. (Some thought Gentry’s song might have been an allegory about Till, whose body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River after being lynched, but it is difficult to make her overall lyrics fit that narrative.)

After a highly successful music career, Bobbie Gentry vanished from the music scene in early 1982. She has never again performed, appeared in public, or given an interview. She has offered no explanation.

I’d like to think that Gentry left the music industry because she recognized its growing corruption, which conflicted with her values, but that is probably wishful thinking on my part. There are as many possible explanations for Gentry’s disappearance as there are for what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Regarding the song’s mysteries, I’d like to take my best shot by piecing together some things Gentry said. She did tell the Los Angeles Times in 1967 that “what happened the day before was the motivation.” (i.e., what was thrown off the bridge motivated the suicide).6 So that connection is certain.

In an interview published in the Paducah Sun in November 1967, Gentry said she knew what was thrown off the bridge. The interview ended with her saying these words: “Suppose it was a wedding ring . . .”7

She told the New York Times: “Actually it was something symbolic.”8

This was a romantic relationship. What more commonly symbolizes a man’s love for a woman than a ring? But a wedding ring would have been premature. Perhaps an inexpensive engagement ring?

And if the song’s narrator and Billy Joe had a falling out, and they threw the ring into the river—well, aren’t rejections and broken relationships a major cause of suicides? However, I’d say Brother Taylor had superb vision is he could detect “something” as small as a ring, unless, perhaps, it was in a box.

NOTES

  1. “Myth or Fact: A Long Version to ‘Ode to Billy Joe,’” Steve Hoffman Music Forums, https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/myth-or-fact-a-long-version-of-ode-to-billie-jo.100850/.
  2. James Deutsch, “Ballads and Bridges in the Muddy Waters of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe,’” Folklife Magazine, March 16, 2022, https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/bobbie-gentry-ode-to-billie-joe.
  3. Lydia Hutchinson, “Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Bille Joe,’” Performing Songwriter July 27, 2013, https://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/.
  4. “Ode to Billie Joe (Song),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe_(song).
  5. Robert Windeler, “Song Is Southern but the Message Is Universal,” New York Times, August 23, 1967, 36, https://www.nytimes.com/1967/08/23/archives/song-is-southern-but-the-message-is-universal-bobbie-gentry-reaches.html.
  6. Leonard Feather, “The Sudden Entry of Bobbie Gentry,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1967, 506, https://www.newspapers.com/article/78493841/.
  7.  “Bobbie Lee Gentry Has a Happy Secret,” Paducah Sun, November 14, 1967, pp. 1, 4. https://www.newspapers.com/image/429627231/.
  8. “Ode to Billie Joe (Song),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe_(song).
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Picture of James Perloff

James Perloff

James has been writing for alternative media since 1985 when he began contributing to The New American magazine. He is the author of six books, the subjects of which range from COVID-19 to political history to creationism.

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