“It was the third of June, another sleepy dusty Delta day.”
Bobbie Gentry’s soulful, sensual opening to “Ode to Billie Joe” launched one of the most enduring mysteries in musical history.
As soon as Mama tells her family about Billie Joe jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, you want to know more about this Billie Joe McCallister and why he took the leap.
By song’s end, you have other unsolved mysteries to unravel:
• What did Billie Joe and the girl throw from the bridge?
• If Papa has five more acres in the lower 40 to plough, does that mean he has an upper 40 as well as a middle 40? If so, who takes care of all these 40s after he catches the virus and dies?
• Why are the girl’s parents so uncaring and oblivious?
All Papa says about Billie Joe is “he never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
And there’s Mama who says Billie Joe’s death was a shame then she starts dissing folks from Choctaw Ridge, where Billie Joe must have lived.
Or maybe the Tallahatchie Bridge spans Choctaw Ridge.
Damn. Another mystery.
At least Brother’s upset by Billie Joe’s death. Before saying, “It don’t seem right,” he mentions the times he saw Billie Joe with his sister.
But Mama’s oblivious to her daughter’s pain. She’s just wondering why the child hasn’t touched a single bite of food she’s worked all morning to cook.
Mama then tells the family Brother Taylor, the local preacher, is coming for Sunday dinner. She adds as an afterthought that he saw a girl who looked like her daughter with Billie Joe — and they were throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
I’ve never formed an opinion as to why Billie Joe jumped or what he and the girl threw from the bridge. Part of the song’s appeal is that we’ll never know what happened.
I do wonder about Brother Taylor. Sure, Mama describes him as nice, but should we trust her judgment? He seems kind of nosy and creepy to me. What kind of “nice” man spies on kids and finagles invitations to Sunday dinner? I’m not accusing him of anything, I’m just asking questions: Did anyone see Billie Joe jump? Could he have been pushed? And does Brother Taylor have an alibi?
What do you think of this mournful and mysterious song, which you can watch Bobbie Gentry perform live here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZt5Q-u4crc