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
Mama hollered out the back door, y’all remember to wipe your feet!
Then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
Is it just me, or does the world feel a good bit colder these days? And I don’t mean the time of year. It seems to me that, even though we’re all more “connected” than ever, we can all, at times, feel more alone and isolated than ever.
It happens all the time, not just in the communities we live in, but in our very own homes. At least it does in mine. There are many times when I’m sitting on the couch, watching TV and surfing online with my iPad, and I’ll look over to see that my son and wife are both busily flipping through screens on their phones. And then “ping”, I’ll get a message from my wife on Facebook. Can’t we just talk to each other any more?
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
Isn’t technology grand? And within these social “networks” we all belong to (I still have a bit of trouble with the concept of “social” and “network” being used together in the same phrase) there is perfect love, peace and harmony, right? Not exactly. Sometimes it can be a downright snarky place to hang out. Gives a whole new meaning to “chillin’ out online”, doesn’t it?
And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece-a apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
Yes, the world can be a cold and callous place. In the digital realm, even the death of folks around us can be trivialized, if not outright jeered at, in some of the more cruel cases. But what I think stings the most is simple indifference. You start to wonder how these people can just walk (or scroll) on by. Not just your own troubles and challenges, but those of others, as well. This is especially true for those with larger networks. Mine is pretty small, so I don’t often experience this side of it. But I know a lot of people do. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
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”
Maybe we can’t classify Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” as classic rock, but it’s definitely a classic and has always been one of my favorites from 1967. Apparently Rolling Stone magazine thought so too, ranking it at #412 on their 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list.
Bobbie was one of the first female country artists to write and produce her own material and the southern-goth toned “Ode” was certainly one of her best songs, spending over a month at #1 on Billboard’s Top 100.
A year has come and 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 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
One gets so caught up in the story about poor Billie Joe, that it’s easy to completely pass over the real meaning behind the song; the nonchalant indifference of this rural family during dinner small talk to the suicide death itself. It just gets mixed right in there amongst the peas, the pie and another 40 acres of field to plow.
The most common question on everyone’s mind after hearing the song centered on what the narrator of the song and Billie Joe threw off the bridge, thereby proving Bobbie’s underlying premise.
A few interesting tidbits about the song include:
- The Tallahatchie bridge collapsed in 1972 , just a few years after the song hit the airwaves. It was later rebuilt.
- After the song became a hit, Rolling Stone magazine reported that the bridge was only 20 feet high over the water and plenty deep, so there was no way to commit suicide by jumping off. Of course, this drove hundreds to try it for themselves, driving the local cops crazy.
- Speculation as to what object Billie Joe threw off the bridge included: an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD, and an aborted baby.
The song remains as one of my all time faves; I love the simple spare arrangement with Bobbie’s raspy vocal, her guitar and just a few strings stirring in the Mississippi breeze on a hot summer day.
I think Henry David Thoreau sums it up with his quote: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Listen to Bobbie live on the BBC from 1968:
Original studio version here:
My sources for this post include: