I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post). And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more. There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”
For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955. Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman. (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson. Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.) Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.
There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”
There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all. The myth of Southern gentility and propriety. The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us. The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.” Sex, race, class. And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.
When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss. (Note that the spelling is different. Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.) Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide. If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.
I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer. As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song. The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices. They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song. The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned? Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this? What the fuck is going on here?
The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking. Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”
There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry. While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip. And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now. But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983. She just dropped out of sight. Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her. Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything. In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river. She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.