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 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
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
Ode To Billie Joe was written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in summer 1967, was a Number-One hit in the USA within three weeks of release and a huge international seller. The recording remained on the Billboard chart for 20 weeks and was the Number One for four weeks. Billboard named it the Number Three song of 1967.
Ode To Billie Joe received eight Grammy Award nominations, with three wins for Gentry. It remains on Rolling Stone‘s lists of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and the “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time”.
The song takes the form of a first-person narrative performed over sparse acoustic accompaniment, plus some background strings. It tells of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to the news of the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter is connected. Rumors around the “Tallahatchie Bridge” forms the narrative and the musical hook for the song. According to Gentry, it is about indifference and unshared grief.
The original version was eight-minutes long with 11 verses. It was originally planned as the B-side of Gentry’s first single recording, Mississippi Delta, on Capitol Records. The Capitol Execs realized that it would work best as the single, so they cut the length by almost half. Gentry took full credit for the success of the record:
Did you know that I took Ode to Billie Joe to Capitol, sold it, and produced the album myself? It wasn’t easy. It’s difficult when a woman is attractive; beauty is supposed to negate intelligence – which is ridiculous. Certainly there are no women executives and producers to speak of in the record business.
The song became so ingrained in our culture that in 1976, nine years after its release, Warner Bros. commissioned Herman Raucher to adapt the story as a novel and screenplay. The Ode To Billy Joe poster’s tagline, which treats the film as being based on a true story and gives a date of death for Billy as June 3, 1953, led many to believe that the song was based on actual events. In Raucher’s screenplay, Billy Joe kills himself because of the guilt of being gay, and the object thrown from the bridge is the narrator’s doll. The film was directed and produced by Max Baer Jr, known for playing Jethro Bodine, the dim-witted nephew of Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. It stars adorable Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor.
The song has been covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Tammy Wynette, Sinéad O’Connor, Patty Smyth, Rosanne Cash, Lorrie Morgan, Lydia Lunch, Paula Cole, and Kathy Mattea. I wanted to do it in my act in the 1980s in a rockabilly arrangement, but my boyfriend that it was too creepy. Not the song; just me doing it.