Book schmook. Let’s do a hard break right and talk about one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Just what did Billie Joe McAllister and Bobbie Gentry throw off the Tallahatchie bridge?
First, the set-up. Ode to Billie Joe is a haunting head-scratcher of a song released in June 1967 that was written, produced, and sung by Bobbie Gentry. She is retired and reportedly hasn’t been seen in years, but at the time was a country singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her Bambi eyes, 1960s catapulted false eyelashes, and luscious dark brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders were mesmerizingly gorgeous.
Okay, so her stunning looks were captivating, but they didn’t match the tone of her gloomy song about . . . a young man committing suicide. Which I now believe is an intentional part of the intrigue and irony.
The family’s mother shares the news about his death during typical rural farm family dinner table banter, which includes unfavorable references to Billie Joe and dialogue about what’s for dinner. Near the end of the song, the mother mentions how a young local preacher stopped by earlier in the day and mentioned he saw a young girl that looked a lot like Ms. Gentry with Billie Joe, and they were throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The same bridge from which Billie Joe jumped to his death later that morning.
Obsessed listeners questioned what had been thrown off the bridge, with theories ranging from a baby to an engagement ring to a draft card. But Gentry later said she wanted her song to be a “study in unconscious cruelty,” attempting to portray the family’s indifference to the suicide and adding that the object thrown from the bridge was not relevant to the message. She also wanted the reason for Billie Joe’s suicide to be left open to interpretation.
Seriously? Every time I hear this song now, I pause to listen intently, hoping to pick up on clues I might have missed. And every time, I come up empty.
Then I remember my inability to understand or come up with a rational explanation is exactly the reaction Gentry was seeking.
I fall for it. Again and again. Is the joke on me? Or is she intentionally making me stop to reflect? Or perhaps more important, to listen intently?
Since I still can’t let this one go, I reached out to our good friend, Rick Crandall, who is founder and executive director of the Colorado Freedom Memorial foundation, which recently launched its “Forever Remembered” capital campaign to build a visitor and education center at the memorial site in Aurora. Rick is the former program director and Breakfast Club host on AM 1430-KEZW radio, back when the station played timeless music—including Ode to Billie Joe—from the World War years up through the 1970s. Trust me, he knows his music.
“It seems lots of people over the years have tried to unravel the mystery of what Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend, who looked like the Pastor’s daughter, threw off the Bridge,” Rick says. Was it a still-born child, was it a wedding ring, was it a love note? Bobbie Gentry never revealed what it was, only saying she knew but wouldn’t tell because that wasn’t the important part of the song. She was more concerned that none of the characters in the song seemed sad or concerned about Billie Joe jumping to his death rather who was he with and what did they throw in the water. As for me, put me down for it was a wedding ring, he did jump, and she lost her appetite because she was sick about it, and that’s why she still drops flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
So there you have it. Slow down and listen. Reflect. Reach out to a friend to ask questions about the stuff that haunts you.
On that note, I’ll leave you with these wise words from my medical oncologist:
“Sometimes there just aren’t answers. Instead, focus on living.”