Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry - Songfacts

Ode To Billie Joe

Album: Ode To Billie Joe (1967)
Charted: 13 1
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  • This song tells the story of the fictional Billie Joe McAllister, who kills himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. There really is a Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi, but Gentry made up the story.

    The Tallahatchie Bridge, which spans the Tallahatchie River, collapsed in 1972, but was later rebuilt.
  • In this song, a family finds out about the death of Billie Joe and shares gossip about him at the dinner table along with their other mundane concerns. Bobbie Gentry explained: "The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. The song is a study in unconscious cruelty."

    The message in the song would become even more relevant in the digital age when social networks and other tools made it easy to comment on newsworthy events. It quickly became clear that there were many folks who lacked empathy for suffering that didn't directly affect them, and these people now had many forums to share their opinions.
  • Gentry was familiar with the Tallahatchie Bridge since she was born and raised in Mississippi, where she grew up in a home without electricity. She learned to sing in church and her family got her a piano to nurture her musical talents. At age 13, she moved with her mother to Palm Springs, California, and in the ensuing years performed locally, taking the stage name Bobbie Gentry (her birth name: Roberta Lee Streeter - she chose the name after seeing Ruby Gentry, a 1952 movie with Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston).

    After graduating high school, she studied at UCLA, and during this time signed a deal with the publishing company Larry Shayne Music, which sent a demo tape of her song "Mississippi Delta" to Capitol Records, hoping one of the established artists on the label would record it. Kelly Gordon, a producer at the label, was impressed with the demo and wanted Gentry to record it herself, so he signed her to a deal as an artist and arranged for her to record it. Needing a flip side for the single, Gentry supplied another song she wrote with a Delta feel: "Ode To Billie Joe." Capitol heard more hit potential in that song, so they released the single with "Ode" as the A-side and "Mississippi Delta" as the flip. Released on July 10, 1967, the song went to #1 in the US on August 26, where it stayed for four weeks, becoming one of the most enduring hits of the era.
  • When Record Mirror asked Gentry in 1967 what was thrown from the bridge at the end of this song, she replied: "It's entirely a matter of interpretation as from each individual's viewpoint. But I've hoped to get across the basic indifference, the casualness, of people in moments of tragedy. Something terrible has happened, but it's 'pass the black-eyed peas', or 'y'all remember to wipe your feet.'"
  • A movie with the title spelled Ode to Billy Joe was released in 1976. The film was based on this song, with a fictionalized Gentry (named "Bobbie Lee Hartley") played by Glynnis O'Connor. Gentry was not in the film, but re-recorded "Ode To Billie Joe" for the soundtrack. This turned out to be some of Gentry's last work high-profile work, as she disappeared from the public eye soon after.

    The re-released version of the song charted at #54, and the main title from the film - also composed by Gentry, made #65.
  • Along with the mystery man in "You're So Vain," what Billie Joe throws off the bridge before he jumps is one of the great questions in pop music. Many people speculated that it was a baby, which led to his suicide. In the movie, he throws over a rag doll and jumps because he thinks he might be gay.

    Gentry insists that what he throws over the bridge isn't important, and to fixate on that is to miss the point of the song - that we often respond to tragic events with cruel dissociation.
  • Released as Gentry's first single, this song topped the US chart for four weeks in 1967, knocking The Beatles "All You Need Is Love" out of the top spot. The Ode To Billy Joe album would also top the chart, displacing The Beatles Sgt Pepper after its 15 week run at #1.
  • Gentry won the Best New Artist Grammy the year this was released. The song also won the awards for Best Vocal Performance, Female; Best Arrangement Accompanying A Vocalist Or Instrumentalist; and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance.
  • Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics to this song to the University of Mississippi, where it is housed in a collection along with works by Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.
  • Jimmie Haskell's string arrangment on this song, which won a Grammy award, was a masterwork and a feat of innovation.

    Speaking with Gary Theroux in his History of Rock 'n' Roll series, Haskell said that he was given full creative freedom with the arrangement, simply because Capitol Records wasn't going to bother giving him specific instructions for a song intended as a B-side. "Bobbie's lyrics are like a movie, so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie," he said.

    String sections at the time were typically four violins, one viola, and one cello, but Haskell used four violins and two cellos. "I was able to use one cello to play a pizzicato bass part, and the other cello to play a traditional bowed string part," he said. "I had to think of a bass line that would not make the cello sound phony because the usual bass line in those days was 'Doom, duh doom, duh doom, duh doom doom doom doom doom, duh doom...' I thought, What's my cello player gonna play that has the fewest notes? Well, I figured out a bass line with only three notes every two bars. It was, 'Doom, [snaps fingers three times], duh doom [snaps fingers three times], doom. Every once in awhile the player might add an extra note. [producer] Kelly listened to the first rehearsal. Then he walked over to where the cello was playing (it's called pizzicato when you pluck the strings). Kelly kneeled in front of the cello and put his ear near the f-hole (on stringed instruments, it sounds like a dirty word but it's because it is shaped like the letter "F") and remarked, 'Keep playing.' Kelly then asked his engineer, Joe Polito, to put the mike right on the cello. And Kelly got a good sound. I decided I couldn't write too much, so after the introduction there isn't much going on with the violins. But the cello is still playing along with Bobbie's guitar. As it turned out, all Capitol had to do was pay the string players overtime. The musicians' union eventually didn't allow arrangers to score music for two artists on the same date."
  • According to the song's arranger Jimmie Haskell, Gentry's original demo of this song was 7-minutes long, with at least one extra verse. That verse appears in her handwritten lyrics - it reveals that a girl named "Sally Jane" was left brokenhearted after Billie Joe jumped to his death.
  • The story of how this song was recorded is rather opaque, complicated by lawsuits and by Gentry refusing interviews after she left the industry. The song is comprised of just Gentry's voice, her acoustic guitar, and a string section. Her voice and guitar were likely recorded for her demo, which she did at a studio with a singer named Bobby Paris at the controls - she did some work singing backup and playing guitar for Paris, and he let her use studio time in return. Capitol records used this demo version (possibly edited down), and hired the arranger Jimmie Haskell to add a string section. On May 24, 1967, he recorded the string section at the end of a session for a group called The Checkmates, Ltd.

    Where this gets sticky is the producer credit, as Gentry's voice and guitar from her demo were used on the hit recording, and Bobby Paris could claim that he was the "producer" of those sessions, even if he was just pushing the record button. After the song became a hit, Paris took legal action, and in 1975 was awarded $32,227 along with a share of future mechanical royalties.
  • Later in 1967, an instrumental version by The Kingpins hit #28 in the US. Ray Bryant also released a version that year that made #89.
  • Running 4:13, this song was longer than most hits of the era, and the longest #1 of 1967.
  • This song had an impact on the Country chart, going to #17. The following year, Gentry teamed up with Glen Campbell to release an album of duets called Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, which went to #1. She had a few more minor hits, including "Okolona River Bottom Band" (#54), but "Ode To Billie Joe" is by far her best-known work.
  • When this became a hit, Rolling Stone magazine reported that it was only a 20-foot drop off the bridge and the water was deep enough so you would not get hurt. Of course, lots of people went to the bridge and jumped, which drove the local police nuts.
  • The Beach Boys did a reply to this song called "Ode to Betty Joe" on their album Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 20 (1968-1969), released with the song "It's Time." The two songs are not Beach Boys recordings, but performed by a comedy and musical group hired by the Beach Boys called the Pickle Brothers (the support group for the Beach Boys' live performances). The two songs later became recorded, pressed, and presumably vended at concerts. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Brandon - Seattle, WA
  • Rosanne Cash's 2014 album The River & the Thread shows her standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge, which she visited on a trip to the South where she collected song ideas for the album. "In my mind the Tallahatchie Bridge was enormous, but it's just a little modest bridge over this little Tallahatchie River," she told us. "Nobody there. We sat on the bridge for a half an hour and one car went by."

    Cash included Ode To Billie Joe in her live set around this time.
  • Country singer Kathy Mattea recorded this for her 2018 album, Pretty Bird.

Comments: 152

  • Peter K from WhitestoneI love the song but there's something in the lyrics that doesn't seem factually correct:

    "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..."

    Papa caught it and he died LAST SPRING." I wonder, which spring is that? Billie Joe died in late spring (June 3) a little over a year ago ("a year has come and gone"). Let’s say Billy Joe died in 1953. So the narrator is telling her story about a year later in 1954. If it's before June 21,1954 then it seems impossible that "Papa ... died last spring." It's still spring! I suppose they could be early into summer of 1954, but then then it should probably be "this spring." Even then, a recent spring death might be arguably too recent to portray Momma as long-term inconsolably listless. Just a small detail but it surprised me to suddenly realize after knowing this song for decades that maybe Bobbie Gentry got a little careless in the interest of finding a good rhyme (spring, anything). I'm sure some people will think "poetic license" or that I'm being too literal about the song, but I think this kind of song should be grounded in plausible facts.
  • Priorknowledge from Florida First, they were throwing flowers into the water. That is what lovers do. They pick flowers on the hill together and then go the bridge and toss them in the water. The song is about the nonchalant way the family is discussing his death and ignoring the obvious distress his suicide is causing the singer. Sheesh.
  • Handsomeproudoldboybrady from Windsor,ont.,can.I 99.5% doubt Billie Joe was black and his girlfriend white, because that song's date (June 3, because '67 was the year in which the song was made and likely set; I was 14 July 6,1967 ) because such pairings would be to all intents illegal until June 12, 1967, when the U.S Supreme Court invalidated state anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws, and Mississippi was the place where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were lynched three years earlier, plus most infamously, Emmett L. Till, 14, in 1955 for supposedly winking at a white woman. Suffice to say Mississippi hadn't become much more progressive (and still hasn't) in the few years since '64 or '55. The seemingly throwaway line by the girl's father at the table "Billie Joe never had a lick of sense," probably explains young Mr. Mc Allister's jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, as he was likely special needs and almost certainly ostracized by the supposedly Christian community,proving again the hypocricy of white (and in no few cases, black) fundamentalist "Christianity."
  • Jay from WashingtonAnother bit of trivia. The song prevented "Reflections" by The Supremes from reaching #1. Gentry was raised in Greenwood, MS which is an hour east of Supremes' singer Mary Wilson's hometown of Greenville, MS. The two cities are major rivals in sports, etc. Also, I've jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge many times. We all used to do it as kids growing up in Greenwood.
  • Random Guy from OklaThe song DOES refer to Billie Joe as him, too bad there isn't somewhere to check the lyrics before posting.
  • Atticus from California J. Johnson from 92040: You ask “Why in fifty years of blogs has no one considered that Billie Joe was a girl?” And that “Nowhere in the song...is Billie Joe referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’ or as a boy or a male”. Nonsense. Try LISTENING to the LYRICS without employing this week’s PC Woke Non-Binary absurdity. “And brother 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 of apple pie/You know it don’t seem right/I saw HIM at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge/And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahassee Bridge.” Don’t misinterpret this legendary and mysterious song by your own misguided and incorrect biases. And, before you twist yourself into a knot by dismissing these comments as the product of a cis-gendered heteronormative male, I’m a proud gay male who was out before your parents were born.
  • Daniel Cohen from Dimona, IsraelThis is the same river in which the lynched body of 14 year old Emmett Till was found. Odd no one remembered that.
  • Major Tom from ArkansasOde to Billy Joe, took me back some 40 years !!!
  • Jc From Ms from Nashville, TnFirst of all, with regard to the spelling of the name "Billie Jo." Bobbie, from day one had it spelled BILLY JOE. But there was an error when they printed the album covers. She was not happy. As far as the meaning, people are trying too hard to find the meaning. I believe "Angel from Tupelo" described it best. (By the way, I'm from Tupelo, MS, as well.) But people truly do NOT understand "backwoods, MS life." When bad things happen in life, especially back then, it was NOT discussed...period! I'm in my 50's now and I'm just now finding out about some of my own family's deep, dark secrets. I would love to know all the details, but my family is determined to take our secrets to their grave. Getting back to life in MS....People, especially the older generation back then, just swept tragic/difficult issues under the rug, so to speak. I went through some traumatic times in my own life. It would have saved me years of heartache if I could have discussed it with someone. But, NO!! That's a huge "no-no"!! You just don't talk about it with anyone. It took me over 20 years before I felt comfortable telling my husband about my abuse. I think a lot of this comes from growing up in the Bible Belt. Discussing bad things was considered taboo. Families felt if other people knew their secrets, they would be ostracized. So, families, for many generations felt the need to portray their family as good, God-fearing Christians who could do no wrong. It's 2020 now, and sadly, not much has changed. That, I do believe, is message behind Ms. Bobbie's song. And she has stated this numerous times. It's not about what actually happened. It's about the family's philosophy of "something bad happened, and it's not okay to talk about it." This is very evident in the song when momma brings up Billy Joe, and papa made a very flippant remark to end the discussion and move on to a different topic. I do not believe the song is about her, personally. Her song comes from being very observant of people and watching their reactions to tragedies. I probably should have added a disclaimer that, while I was born in Tupelo, I spent many of my childhood years growing up in Chickasaw County. I lived and witnessed the same things she saw when SHE lived there. So it's very easy for me to understand the lyrics behind the song.
  • Sb from OhioJ Johnson from 92040
    Nowhere in the song, "Ode to Billie Joe," is Billie Joe referred to as "he" or "him," or as a boy or as a male.

    Is that not said at 1:45 and several lines following?
  • Sermonator from 7th HeavenJ Johnson, interpret the song as you like, but Gentry made it clear in many subsequent interviews that Billie Joe was a boy.
  • Jim Westmoreland from Former Mississipian T.cAs a born and raised in Mississippi (born in Thula, lived in Corinth, Ole Miss campus, and Tupelo) boy and grew up there in the 60's, I can offer a less dramatic perspective on this song. The singer provides a very good description in the first few lines about the hot, dusty environment and then goes into the gist of the song. My only problem with the discussion about Billie Joe' behavior is the discussion likely would not have happened because you did not talk openly about such things. But, hey, no song if they didn't have the conversation. Anyway, we gather that the singer feels maybe guilt, sadness, maybe not sure how she felt. Her brother jumps in and mentions he and Billie Joe and Tom dropped the frog and hey, he saw her talking to Billie Joe just last Sunday after church. So we know that the singer knew Billie and talked with but little else. The singer is now thinking through stuff, what they talked about, did he mention something? And more importantly could she have prevented this from happening? We know Billie Joe is a boy, her brother said so and maybe did some foolish stuff: papa said Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, as if this was a dare, not a suicide attempt. In those days, people lived in small 1-3 bedroom houses and usually one bathroom. It would be real hard to hide inappropriate stuff, especially and abortion. So the singer is having to cope with this very strange thing that she could have prevented if she had just listened. The thing about the bridge is just a setting and a reference point. The "something off the bridge would likely have bee rocks or something. It's just a place where you talk with friends, maybe share some feeling while throwing rocks at the fish down below. And she talked with him after church. One reviewer mention a poetic justice thing but that would have been a stretch back then. Only if the parents had contributed to the guy's death would anyone bring up a karma-type issue. So the growing up continues, Papa died, mom is withdrawn, someone else moved to Tupelo (little further away than Kosciusko). The singer noticed the lack of permanence and sings this song. Of course this is artistry and the artist takes certain liberties though in this case, its not specifically addressing the hidden story that grabs our attention).
  • J Johnson from 92040Nowhere in the song, "Ode to Billie Joe," is Billie Joe referred to as "he" or "him," or as a boy or as a male. The spelling of "Billie" is often used for girls and women. Why in fifty years of blogs has no one considered that Billie Joe was a girl, and that many culturally relevant reasons may cause young women to commit suicide. The boyish name "Billie Joe" invokes the image of a tomboy, maybe bi-gendered, maybe a lesbian, maybe with a romantic attraction to the narrator of the song. The Delta has never been kind to gender identity diversity. Bobbie Gentry sang a fictional ode to an archetypal girlfriend who could not endure the social reactivity of southern white Protestants embedded in norms traditional morality. The assumptions of listeners and readers for decades have predictably overlooked the hidden-in-plain-sight affection between two young females, throwing flowers into a river as doomed lovers have done for centuries in western literature.
  • Richard from MassachusettsMy take on the lyrics is that the girl narrating the story is young, perhaps 14 or 15, and Billie Joe is older, most likely in his 20s, so they must keep their love for each other a secret which is obvious from the song. She gets pregnant and has a miscarriage, and the two throw the baby into the river but he is overcome by grief and commits suicide. While one theme in the song is the casual way the family discusses the tragedy while also talking about food, to me a more poignant theme is the image of this young girl sitting at the dinner table while her family unknowingly chats about the suicide of the man she loves. Meanwhile, she struggles to keep her emotions locked inside, the only outward manifestation being her loss of appetite after hearing the devastating news. Her tender love for Billie Joe, perhaps her first love, is demonstrated when, despite the death of her father and the mental collapse of her mother, she is still thinking only about the man she loved and lost. This is a powerful narrative about how cold and cruel the world can be!
  • Kawa from Tokyo, JapanHi Music loves,

    I think that the idea of the lyrics of the song came from the lyrics of the blues called Floating Bridge. Because the key line of the song that Bobbie wrote was Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Floating Bridge is a blues about a bridge, which was broken down and young man was almost drown when he was playing a bum on the bridge. This blues song was covered by Eric Clapton later and I think Bobbie knew this song in 1960s when she wrote Ode to Billie Joe, because she was from Mississippi. I think she found that the song was very interesting and impressive. At that time there was a another song that impressive her and make her write a song. It was a song called Like A Rolling Stone written by Bob Dylan in 1965, Because it has an impressive line Like A Rolling Stone, that reminds me of Muddy Waters' song Rolling Stone. Both songs, Floating Bridge and Like A Rolling Stone were the songs that made Bobbie wrote Ode To Billie Joe. Because it is a long song like Like A Rolling Stone and has some key words like Muddy water and Bridge. I hope this makes sense to understand the lyrics.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn October 8th 1967, the album 'Ode to Billie Joe' by Bobbi Gentry moved into the #1 {for 2 weeks} spot on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart; and as a result it ended the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' fifteen week reign at #1 on the chart...
    And at the time the single of "Billie Joe" was at #5 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; two months earlier on August 20th it had peaked at #1 {for 4 weeks}...
    {See the 3rd post below}.
  • Frank from NyDid anyone ever hear a new song written about what happened that night at the Tallahatchie Bridge? It was sung by a female and has a similar melody to "Ode to Billie Joe". I heard it a couple of years ago and haven't heard it since. No one else that I ask seems to have heard of it and I cannot find anything about it on the Internet.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, Ny*** 'Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge' ***
    On June 20th 1972, the Tallahatchie Bridge in Leflore County, Mississippi collapsed (the bridge had been damaged by vandals, who had lit a fire on it)...
    A new replacement bridge was constructed just south of the original bridge's location.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, Ny*** "It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day" ***
    And fifty-seven days later on July 30th, 1967 "Ode to Billie Jo" by Bobbie Gentry entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #71; and on August 20th it peaked at #1 (for 4 weeks) and spent 14 weeks on the Top 100 (and for 9 of those 14 weeks it was on the Top 10)...
    After 4 weeks at #1, it spent the next 2 weeks at #2...
    And September 16th, 1967 it also reached #1 (for 1 week) on the Canadian RPM Top singles chart...
    Margie Singleton released a covered version, also in 1967, and her version peaked at #39 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart...
    Ms. Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter, will celebrate her 70th birthday next month on July 27th, 2014.
  • Homerwoody from Middleton, AzOK - Here's the straight 'dope' on Bobbie Gentry's GREAT song 'Ode To Billy Joe' - She wrote it - both the lyrics and the music and she sang it and played her own rhythm guitar on the record - just the way she composed the song almost in a moment of spontaneous combustion as many songwriters do. It happened in Blythe, CA on a hot summer night sitting on the balcony overlooking the Colorado River after a gig at a club there in town where she was in a band with my old friend Rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds (Endless Sleep) whom she made her recording debut with on Titan Records in 1964 on one 45 single release 'Stranger In The Mirror' b/w 'Requiem For Love' which didn't really crash the charts. She was Jody's rhythm guitarist and she sang duets and background vocals - the other band members are unknown except for Palm Springs local legend Bobby Craig was playing piano with Jody + an unknown bass & drums. They were at the club for a 10 night stand and it was summer time which is HOT in Blythe! After the gig one night they came back to their motel and all gathered out on the balcony to cool off because there was no AC in the rooms. Bobbie grabbed her acoustic guitar, sat on the balcony and started strumming that funky D7th chord and and started singing. She wrote the whole song - all 1o or 12 verses in less than 20 minutes. Jody told her, "Bobbie Lee, that's a great song - you'd better write that down before you lose any of it." She had a legal pad in her room and went and wrote it down. This was in the Summer of 1966 - she was still living in Palm Springs as did Jody and rest of the band. She told Jody, "When we get thru with these dates here at the club, I'm going home and rest a day or so and then I'm going to go to Capitol Records in Hollywood and get a recording contract!" Which is exactly what she did. She walked in with her guitar and asked to see a producer. One was summoned for her to talk to. He asked her if she had a demo of her song and she said, "No, but I have my guitar and the lead sheet Bobby Craig wrote out for me to send away for the Copyright." The producer asked her to follow him and took her to a room with a microphone and he asked her to sing her songs. She sang 'Ode To Billy Joe' and one other song 'Missisppie Delta' and as she sang them an engineer made a demo tape of her singing her two songs to pass on to the suits at Capitol and they kindly gave her a copy for her to take with her but they didn't sign her that day. There was talk of a contract but that came a few months later. She wrote the song in front of Jody Reynolds and Bobby Craig who both knew her well from the Palm Springs area. She wrote it all by herself with no help from anyone. She was intrigued by Jody's song, 'Endless Sleep' which is about a girl who decides to kill herself by running out into the ocean after a fight with her boyfriend one night as she walks along the beach a voice from the deep calls for her and she begins to believe it is her only answer to her pain, Then the boyfriend comes to the rescue and pulls her from the water and saves her from an 'endless sleep' - she was intrigued by it but she didn't copy it or the idea. Jody's song had been banned when it first was released because it was misinterpreted as a pro-suicide theme until Allan Freed broke the song in Philly then it broke nationwide. Bobbie Lee loved the storyline in the song which had in fact been influenced by Heartbreak Hotel after Jody heard it. He sat down in his room in Yuma, AZ and wrote it in 5 minutes! Great songs are born this way NOT stolen or contrived! All this stuff about this Jim Ford either writing it or co-writing it is bulloney! He never went any further with his brags once he found out that Jody & Bob Craig had witnessed her write the song along with their bass player and drummer. Bobbie Gentry was AND is a very gifted singer, musician and songwriter. She understood about Southern living as the song depicts because she lived it. As to the mystery about what was thrown off the bridge she has never told anyone not even Jody or the band that night. It was a mystery from the start! After she sang it while writing it in front of them they asked her, "Hey, what did they throw off the bridge?" Bobbie Lee just smiled and said, "Use your imagination. It's up to you, whatever you think it is and it doesn't really matter because the song isn't about that." Then they asked her, "Why did Billy Joe kill himself by jumping off the bridge?" She just smiled and said, "That's another mystery!" That's the sum total of it. None of this gay scandal or rape or abortions or all this other stuff people are dreaming up like mixed race or questionable gender etc. Billy Joe was just a regular guy and he loved this girl but he couldn't be with her for whatever reason and he killed himself. And the story is how all these people are sitting there talking like it's the weather or a baseball score or whatever and they don't evebn care one of their own has died and their own daughter is crushed at the news. It's indifference and apathy and it's ignorance. They hide behind their noses to the grindstone aplomb and their selfrighteous religion and at the same time they have all the scuttlebutt going all over town they don't have a clue about their own child and her feelings. It's sad and not just a southern thing nor is it a white thing or poor folks thing... it's humanity that's all too often self absorbed with self--importance and this whole idea that we all create our own destinies or are supposed to be in control so much so that we forget about taking care of our neighbors in need or trying to help the less fortunate among us. We turn a bland eye to the obvious needs around us and strain to appear so concerned about someone down the road or across the sea. Too much has been read into the song via the storyline in the movie... the song came FIRST and the movie is PURE FICTION and NOT based on the song at all!
  • Alexandra from Stkn, CaI thought the character of Billie Joe McCalistair committed suicide because he'd been raped by 3 local men at a fair, not because he thought he was Gay. Rape is traumatic for anyone, more so for men back in the olden days.
  • Mary from Grayslake, IlOde To Billy Joe is a lot like other tragic songs. It gives you clues but not details. The songwriter leaves something to your imagination so you can relate it's message back to your own life experiences. The reactions of the characters to their situations tells us more about them than details would suggest. For example, Bobby Goldsboro's Honey tells about a sensitive wife who has an untimely death, leaving her husband to grieve. Gentry's Ode To Billy Joe shows us the stoic reactions of one family to another's pain. Stoicism is not uncommon. Gentry applied poetic justice in having the father die suddenly of virus one year later, leaving this family to experience grief. Although it natural for us to wonder why Billy Joe committed suicide and what was thrown off the bridge, the details aren't as important as the message Gentry wanted to convey. If I had to guess at the reason for the suicide, I'd keep it simple and leave about abortion, racism and homophobia. People who commit suicide are depressed and feel no way out. Billy Joe felt he wasn't loved enough or was being ignored by his folks; hence his temptation to pull pranks on others. The father had said he lacked common sense. What was thrown off the bridge? Not a fetus. Most likely a suicide note and the instrument of death: a knife, pills, poison, rope, gun, whatever. His girlfriend threw these things off the bridge to keep him from using it on himself. She didn't think he'd come back to the bridge when she wasn't around and jump off. She lost her appetite as she realized she'd failed to convince him. I find if you must know a song's details, keep the explanations simple. Then you may be closer to what the songwriter intended.
  • Robert from Snellville, GaSuppose that Billy Joe was black (or a poor white boy from a bad part of town)...and he had a love affair with the singer. The relationship would have been "taboo" during the setting of the song in the Mississippi Delta.The relationship was kept secret...the singer became pregnant, and they decided that the only option was an abortion. So they met on the bridge where they had met many times before and they threw the fetus into the water. The young preacher was also romantically interested in the singer, but she did not share his feelings and was not interested...or perhaps she did not feel "worthy" of marrying the preacher who had an "unblemished reputation," in contrast to her having extramarital sex/pregancy in a "taboo" relationship. The mother wanted her to marry the preacher, inviting him to dinner to encourage a relationship between him and her daughter. The singer sat at the dinner table and was devastated by the news of her lover's suicide. She is the only one who knows all the facts but she doesn't dare say anything. She just listens to the dinner conversation which is, to her, very cruel and uncaring. She has lost her baby and her lover. Brokenhearted, she has no appetite, her mother notices... possibly suspicious of the relationship al along? In the end, after all the sadness and pain, she finds her only solace in going to the bridge, picking flowers and throwing them into the water. It is about the pain and sorrow of losing everything and having to bear it alone amidst the cruelty of others who are oblivious to their own cruelty...
  • Edward from Colora, MdThis is a great song because it has stood the test of time and apparently I'm not the only one who loves this song. I loved it when it first came out and it is still one of my favorites today.
  • Njp from Lexington, KyThere was another song that came out around this time which has a line which describes what goes on when you try to parse the events or meaning in OTBJ - this other song's punchline was "Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one." The songwriter does not give us enough information to figure out what happened and all the speculation is just so much invention. Over the years since it came out, I've heard speculation that they threw 1. a baby; 2. an aborted fetus; 3. the narrator's bloody underwear (Billy Joe supposedly took her virginity) 4: the narrator's diary; 5: a gun 6: a puppy and etc. etc. et al. Personally, I think they tossed fifty pounds of overripe bananas.......
  • Daniel from Toledo, OhOne more fact about Jim Ford claiming authorship. I'm using a quote from Jim Fords cd linernote ' Sound of Our Times' by Nick Lowe" Jim Fords reputation was not the best. he told a lot of terrible stories and use to bend the truth a bit" That should put the nail in the coffin of his bogus claim of authoring Ode to Billie Joe.
  • Keith from Retford, United KingdomI'm a Brit who got haunted by this song years ago and it still haunts me.
    Some things are and deserve to remain enigmatic and this is one of them. I don't actually want to have this song taken apart and analysed because it gives me, as a foreigner, enough of an insight into rural Missisippi life in the 60s.

    I think I'll enjoy listening to it all the more for never being certain of what it really means.
  • Daniel from Toledo, OhI wanted to make another comment about Jim Ford claiming authorship.Nick Lowe stated that Ford claimed sole authorship. If he had any part in writing this masterpiece there would have been rough drafts and creative evidence. The obvious reason he did not file a claim is because he knew he would have lost. Who would not file a claim if they had written a song that has generated 100 million dollars in four decades and not gotten a royality check? Most creative artists keep their rough drafts because they become valuable history to the creative process. As stated before, Bobbie's rough drafts have been housed at The Un. of Mississippi since 1973. The posted drafts, written on legal pads, show the full depth of her creative process with her crossing out lyrical lines and really working the song to attain the desired effect. They also show some of the missing verses Capitol Records cut from the original recording session. There is also a subtle sexist text to a question of authorship.In the late 1960's many men had a problem with women writers. Bob Dylan even stated there was not single major female poet in the entire English language. He went on to write a savage parody of Ode to Billie Joe to prove his creative superiority. That song called Answer to Ode: Clothsline Saga is a brutal attack on the subtle mastery of Gentry's masterpiece. When she was asked to respond in print she took the high road calling Dylan a true master of the songwriting craft and entitled to his own opinion.
  • Daniel from Toledo, OhLet me put the Jim Ford rumor to rest. The Un. of Mississippi has just put Bobbie Gentry's rough drafts of Ode to Billie Joe on their web site It shows the construction of the song and some of the missing verses written in Bobbie's own hand. Bobbie always sited Ford as an influence. She even recorded Niki Hoeky on her debut album . The places and events in the song(The Tallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw Ridge) are real places from Gentry's own childhood. The harsh ,rich imagery of the Delta is also HER life experiences. Bobbie also always gave co-authorship credit when it was due but the vast majority of her 100+ published songs were written exclusively by her.
  • Anita from Chicago, IlBobby was living with my cousin, Jim Ford, when this song was written. They split up before she recorded it. He said they wrote it together. She said it was all hers. I wasn't there, and you weren't there, so you cannot swear or "know for a fact" that Bobby was the sole author of this song, simply by virtue of being related to her, any more than I can refute it by being related to Jim. I begin to think the creation of this song is more of a mystery than the subject matter. Jim is not pathetic nor a braggart, and it's obnoxious of the poster to say so, not knowing him. I think he was heart-broken when they split, and bewildered that she denied his influence when the song came out. I don't think she intended it to happen...the song was only meant to be the shadowy, unknown flipside to a more popular headliner. The changeover happened rapidly, and there wasn't much time to sort out authorship and credit before the song hit it big and was out in the world. Too messy to reel it back in, and set things right at that point. I understand, but I am sad for Jim. He died in 2007.
  • Nicolas from Marseille, FranceIf we want to know the true about Billie Joe's story, lets remember the following expressions wrote on Wikipedia : In an interview with Bob Harris broadcast by BBC Radio 2 in Bob Harris Country on 16 April 2009, singer Rachel Harrington claimed that Gentry originally wrote eleven verses, but deleted six because a record producer thought the song was too long. It would be enough to ask to the author 5 other verses into wich we probably find the precision wich it misses in the current song (in 2010, Gentry was still alive).
  • Charles Hollingswort from Leeds, AlThe actual truth of this song will never be known because Bobbie has this truth in HER heart and in HER mind;she is the only one who knows the truth and she will carry her secret to her grave!!! FOREVER will the mere speculation continue.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyAs stated above The Kingpins covered this song; The Kingpins were actually King Curtis and his band. There was also another instrumental version, this one by The Ray Bryant Combo, it peaked at #89 in 1967!!!
  • Camille from Toronto, OhFirst, Bobby Gentry was a sultry fox. Great interpretations of the song here. Billy Joe: definitely male. Mama broke the tragic news to the kids as they came in from the field, not at dinner. She knew it'd be a shock so she just wanted to get it out there and give them time to absorb the news. Papa brought it up at the table. Like most men of that era, he was busting his butt providing for his family & had no time for a young kid's emotional issues, so he dismisses it. How did Mama find out about BJ? Brother Taylor stopped by and told her! He did it out of compassion because he'd observed something between the singer & BJ. He wanted to make sure things were okay with the singer & warn the mother, if only subtly, to keep an eye on her daughter to make sure she didn't have similar suicide thoughts. It was natural for Mama to invite Brother Taylor for Sunday dinner since he'd taken time to inform her of the news; natural for him to accept. He's pleased because there's an understanding between him & Mama (he's got his eye on her daughter). Mama's a little depressed to begin with, "nothing good ever happens..." and thinks there's a possibility her daughter could find an easier/happier life than the mother if she goes the way of marrying a preacher & not a farmer. Of course, later, after her husband dies of a virus, she realizes that life with him was better than she perhaps realized. By song's end, Mama's words become prophetic in that nothing good ever happens there. I always thought the singer's newborn was thrown off the bridge, but after reading all these comments, I no longer think so. I haven't yet decided what it was. It's just when Bobby Gentry sings that line, "she & Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off..." her voice goes SOO deep, it makes you think it was SOO horrific; as if the singer is afraid her secret is going to come out. We don't know why the singer & the preacher never make a go of it. What were the secrets she & Billy Joe had that kept her immobilized?
  • Rick from Belfast, MeGreat song.....and there are so many trivia questions you could ask about this song, because she sings a lot of info
  • Daniel from Toledo, OhI wanted to comment on the film adaptation of Ode to Billie Joe. Bobbie Gentry handpicked Herman Rancher to write the screenplay and she is listed as his co-author. Her songs from her masterpiece album PatchWork, Benjamin and Belinda, are main characters and events in the movie. It was her relentless promotion of the film on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas's television shows that made it a smash hit. On a production budget of 1 million dollars, the film had a 50 million dollar box office run in 1976. To this day, Bobbie Gentry owns 10% of it. Because of its success,Coal Miners Daughter received a huge production budget in 1979.
  • Daniel from Toledo, OhBobbie Gentry wrote both Ode to Billie Joe and Fancy as short stories before setting them to music. The shorts and all her other rough drafts are house at The Un. of Mississippi in the Faulkner Room .Some of the material has been transfered to the state library. It is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read them that the the work is hers. Jim Fords clam of authorship was pathetic. He never challenged her in court and died a bitter broken man. His bragging and gossiping about a forty years past relationship with her until the end of his life was truely sad. Ode to Billie Joe has been covered by over 200 artists and sold 40 million records. Bobbie won The Grammy HOF for it in 1999 and in 2008 she was inducted in The Mississippi Musicans HOF. I saw Roseanne Cash in concert ,recently, and she ended her show with a masterful interpretation. Ode To Billie Joe was on he father, Johnny Cash's, list of the most influential country songs and in 2001 it made Rolling Stones top 500 songs of all time issue.
  • Jon from Scotland, United Kingdom@Lisa, Philadelphia. I think you're correct with your "simple" explanation. Too many people are reading too much into the lyrics (and Bobbie Gentry agreed with that assumption) - and the movie based on the song just confused matters further.
  • Lisa from Philadelphia, PaI don't believe in the theory of throwing a baby or a body off the bridge. Women have more of a tendency to feel guilt. Definately a young "dramatic" teenager was thrown by her families matter of fact way of discussing the death. She obviously felt something for him. And she probably spent alot of time with him sitting on the bridge and throwing rocks, because there was nothing else to do! As for BJ jumping...has anyone thought that maybe he and his buddies were sitting on the bridge drinking beer and someone "Triple Dog Dared" him to jump off and the poor sap did it and broke his neck? Hence daddy's "he didn't have a lick of sense" remark. He knew the bozo did it on a dare. Those are my thoughts, I think they are maybe a bit simple. But I tend to go with things are what they are and there is no hidden meaning.
  • Tina from Ipswich, United KingdomTo me this song is simple if ( of Course) sad. It is about the the young girls friendship with her older brothers old friend. It was a conversation around a dinner table in an age when this would have been shocking, but seen as things happen. But to the young girl involved it was her first experience of a sudden death. It was shocking to her because it was (in her mind) the begining of a relationship. To the rest of her family, it was a tragedy, but life goes on. Lots of people on here seem to need to know every detail, as I did, but having read all the posts, I'm back to where I started. Good on you Bobbie!

  • Lorraine from Metro Pittsburgh, PaWow...it's amazing how a lot of people around my age ( i am now 48 ) remember how haunting this song was. I remember my mom singing this song over and over again. And since my grandparents were from the South ( moved north when the Steel mills were hiring African Americans) they still had that Southern dialect similar to Bobbie Gentry in this song; and was surprised that Bobbie Gentry was not a black singer!! She was pretty though. There was something always so haunting about the line "heard about the news this morning up on Choctaw Ridge....they say that Billie Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge..." . That line would just give me the creeps, even at age 7 when I first heard this. What a song.
  • Dan from Brandon, Msin the last two lines of the song bobbie gentry spends a lot of time picking flowers up on choctaw ridge and drops (throws) them into the muddy waters off the bridge. it's my opinion that she is there reminiscing about the very thing that she and billy joe may have been doing prior to him jumping, which was throwing flowers they had picked off the bridge. the line by brother taylor , " and she an billy joe was throwin' somethin' off the tallahatchee bridge doesn't infer it took both of them together to throw whatever it was off the bridge, but could have been individual acts as each of them threw thier flowers as for bob dylan he recites his poems with bacground music because he certainly can't sing
  • Alexandra from Bournemouth, United KingdomThis is a wonderful song and a masterpiece of storytelling. Must be one of the most melancholy songs ever. Simple guitar and deadpan voice utterly brilliant. The unanswered questions , the half formed characters, the detached bits of dialogue, the heat, the work, religion , the bridge and two deaths...or is it three?

    The mournful background strings...no particular beginning and no particular end...like life in the 50s/60s Delta...just going on, a monotone, flat.

    I have always thought a baby was thrown over the bridge...teenage girls are robust, they can hide a pregnancy and recover quickly from a birth. Sad.

    I seem to remember that there were rumours of romance between Elvis Presley and Bobbie around 1973/4. She has a great voice.
  • Paul from Washington Dc, DcI've read a lot of analyses of this terrific song on this site. I remember the first time I heard it. I was in kindergarten and had just gotten home from school. I was eating lunch at the kitchen table, just like the narrator's family in the song. My mom switched on the radio, and soon it was playing. I've loved music ever since I could walk, and I listened intently.
    I remember when it was over I asked,"Why did he jump off the bridge, mommy?", suicide being a phenomenon that I had never heard of at that tender age. Lots of people have speculated that BJ was Gay; indeed, the '76 movie played upon this. Being a Gay man myself, I must admit to being rather nonplussed at the notion of a beautiful and haunting song ultimately reinforcing the notion that all Gay people are doomed to a life of self-destructive despair.
  • Michael from Cleveland, Oh The solution to the mystery is IN THE SONG. The narrator is from a farming family. She (and the rest of her family) work hard out in the fields. They work like horses, eat like horses, and are built like horses. Billie Joe is not a bad kid, but he's not that popular either.
    They had a secret affair. But now he wants to chase other girls. They meet on the bridge to TALK. He says "I think you're really nice and I like you a lot blah, blah, blah, but I think we should see other people blah, blah, blah. I think you should have your ring back." She says here's what I think of the ring..." and throws it over the railing. (This is what the preacher saw as he DROVE BY.) By now she is quite upset. She who is a big, strong girl, then picks BJ up and throws his ass off the bridge. The rest is history.
  • Stella from London, United KingdomI loved this tragic and beautiful song when I first heard it and it is still powerful. The words and music work together to express the chilling indifference to the boy's suicide and the contrasting anguish of the narrator. The words 'grief' and 'love' are not mentioned but that is what the song is about.
    It astounds me that people think a baby could have been thrown off the bridge. The song is full of references to the tight-knit, hard-working community, with brilliant reference to the farming and life there. No young girl could have got pregnant without it being noticed. Meeting a boy a bridge - maybe. It seems that the couple could not marry, possible for social reasons; maybe the parents wanted the narrator to marry the preacher or perhaps the girl herself was not sure. We don't need to know. The masterly year later narrative showing the loss of interest in life by the active and rather bossy mother after the death of her husband and life going on for the others makes an outstanding compressed short story. The last line still chills me as it shows with words and music how deeply the girl still loves and grieves Bobby. Among the best of the songs of its era and original.
  • Manoj from Delhi, IndiaThis song depcits about mother's care for their children and the anxiety shown by every member of the family over the suicide of Billy Joe. Sangfroid attitude of father, brother's reminiscent about BJ and finally the narrator's state of mind and reaction. Of course she had a bonding with BJ and would had a spat over some issue yesterday. BJ and girl looked like her were spoted by Preacher on Choctaw Ridge and throwing something (it would be the faith of their bonding whatever it be) off the Tallachatchie Bridge. Losing that thing could not be borne by BJ and impulsively he took that extreme step. Nice song.
  • Jim from Nashville , TnI was 20 when the song was released .. and its one of my all time favorites I am a gay man .. and from the 1st time I heard the song I knew that Billy Joe was gay ..and that he ended his life to spare hardship and pain for his family I always thought the preacher had done something to him .. that nice young preacher . havent we heard those words before from a sexual predator .. then when the movie came out I knew I was right .. what they threw off the bridge was soemthing that connected billy joe to the nice young preacher in a way that caused him to end his life the next day ..
    it is a sad song mixed with the true voice of a poor southern family .. and their day to day life
  • Hebrew from St. Paul, MnThe narrator was raped by the preacher and became pregnant. She confided in Billy Joe as her savior. Together they kept the secret, with billy even promising to take responsibility for the rape child. The stalking preacher became aware of their relationship and the pregnancy by spying on them witnessing either a funeral of a still born or a live abortion of his rape child. Knowing that Billy Joe knew his rape secret, the preacher murdered Billy Joe. Then stopped by to further intimidate the narrator to keep her mouth shut.
  • Emma from Brisbane, AustraliaI agree with Andrew from Edmonton. The day was normal, sleepy, undisturbed until lunch time. There was nothing to indicate that anything had upset the family's hard-working, rhythmic lifestyle prior to Billie Joe's death. The narrator presumably had a normal appetite up until she heard the news about Billie Joe since her mother seems surprised that she has "lost her appetite". Surely if the narrator had been pregnant and aborted or lost a baby, everyone would have noticed! And she wouldn't have been able to work hard in the cotton fields if she'd just given birth. Billie Joe's death seems to be the turning point in the lives of all in this family, not events prior to it. The conversation round the table is just that of a normal, practical farming family, not hardened, but accepting of death as part of the cycle of nature. The mother, far from being controlling, sounds like a lovely lady, concerned about her family (and of course hoping that the new preacher might be a match for her much-loved daughter - nothing wrong in that). The mother is the one who is saddened by Billie Joe's death, someone she didn't know well, but whose death she feels deserves some acknowledgement. There was definitely a strong friendship/relationship between the narrator and Billie Joe, but how this led to them throwing something off the bridge is a mystery. Interesting observation by the commentator above who thought that since it took two people to throw this thing off the bridge, perhaps it was a body. Perhaps Billie Joe has killed someone unintentionally and called on his friend to help him dispose of the body, then finds he cannot live with what he has done. Fascinating, evocative song. Wonderful!
  • Leona from Denver, CoHere's my theory: The girl and Billie Joe are obviously in love. On the bridge, they made some kind of pledge of undying love, and the thing thrown off the bridge was simply a token of that pledge. Extraneous details are not usually included in these little narratives, explaining why we're only told that it was "something", without so much as even a mention of its size, shape or color, or of whether it was one thing or a series of things. Billie Joe then despaired of ever being able to fulfill his pledge because his sweetheart's father -- Papa -- did not hold him in high regard ("...never had a lick o' sense..."). He became suicidal for this reason. Papa's attitude toward Billie Joe meant that they had to keep their relationship secret, and they apparently did a good job of it. Neither of the girl's parents seems to have any inkling of it. Papa's death in the last verse, on the same theory that extraneous details are not usually included in these little narratives, is an integral part of the story because it is a tragic piece of irony. The situation was not as hopeless as Billie Joe had thought; he need only have waited a matter of months, and the ogre would have been out of the way. Her brother's marriage to Becky Thompson, I think, is probably mentioned because something like buying a store in Tupelo was similar to the girl's dreams of a future with Billie Joe.
  • David from San Jose, Cahave you guys mentioned Howard roberts jazz guitarist who also covered the song ? great! I`m a funk jazz freak.
  • Susan from River Ryan, NsI heard the song the other day; the first time in 20 years, and it gave me chills! I liked it as a child, and of course saw the movie with Robbie Bensen, but never gave it much thought. OK, my thoughts...young teenage girls (around 14-15)have strange and strong crushes on older guys that are friends of their brother...the song indicates that her brother is quite a bit older than her(he gets married that year) and was a friend of Billie Joe. They put a frog down her dress, teasing her or maybe trying to get rid of her and stop her from tagging along. However, she and BJ seem to have a secret between them; what did she see or discover up on Choctaw Ridge, when she was sneaking and following him around?? Did she catch BJ and the preacher together? Did BJ meet her after church (presumably he was there to see the preacher)and to ask her not to tell? Was the preacher stopping by to speak to Mama to see if she told? I remember how secretive about any love crushes I was during age 14-16, and would never even mention anything about sex, straight or gay, especially to my parents.
  • Spoonie from Boston, MaGreat song. I can imagine the narrator turning pale as she listens to her family casually gossip about the suicide. IMHO, I think they were throwing flowers or pebbles off the bridge, something two people in love might innocently do together. At least I'd rather think this than something as dramatic as a baby. The drama comes from the narrator keeping her heartbreak and grief a secret. She throws flowers off the bridge at the end of the song in remembrance. [note: maybe the secret is Billie Joe was a girl???]
  • John from Nashville, TnOne of the best story songs I've ever heard. It's like a four-minute novel. Absolutely brilliant!
  • Tiffany from Little Rock, ArI love this song; the first time I heard it, it haunted me...and then I took a trip from home in Little Rock down to Oxford, MS and passed where the infamous bridge was. Bobbie's voice is so down home you can smell the biscuits and beans during the not-so-polite dinner conversation. Those who want an accurate depiction of the rural South and its attitudes towards living and dying during the early to mid 60s...this is the song.
  • Antym from Delhi, NyThe Fifth Dimension had a great version of this song that was recorded live in the 1970s. The five members each had a part, and did it really well.
    It really brings out the angst and shock of the narrator (the awesome singer Marilyn McCoo) and the whole idea that the family just keeps on with the rest of their meal in spite of the news.

    Interesting comments here!
  • Angel from Tupelo, MsI did not read ALL the comments; just enough to realize there are a LOT of "Not Southern" out there. THERE ARE MANY...MANY Tallahatchie Bridges, as the river is quite long. The bridges have NOT fallen down; cars are driving across them daily. I have a close friend who attended school with her in Houston, MS. She was a rather quite/reserved person at the time. The song is a 'complete figment of her imagination'. a story......period. Angel-Memphis, TN
  • Greg from Appleton, WiWhen was the first time you confronted the thought of death? Not in a superficial way, but seriously and deeply? Perhaps it was when someone you knew died suddenly? For some of us, it doesn't necessarily have to be anyone we're especially close to. Simply someone that we saw "just the other day". After thinking about this song for years, and mulling over its many possible themes, I come down to this. Ode To Billie Joe is simply about a young girl's shock at encountering mortality. The apparent indifference of her world-weary parents only intensifies her grief. If Bobbie Gentry didn't intend to suggest any particular storyline, then maybe our only recourse is to look for the core emotion. I'm not saying this is the ultimate answer, only that it works for me.
  • John from Tiptonville, Tnfor some reason i always thought it was an aborted or stillborn baby. john
  • Fred from Flörsheim-dalsheim, GermanyI always use this song in listening comprehension exercises and all ideas to what BJ and singer have thrown of the bridge do not account for the total destruction of the family following BJs suicide.
    So it must have been a really atrocious act.
    Remember father dies, mother becomes listless having lost interest in life, brother marries and becomes one of the middle class, a shop owner and the singer has reduced her life to remembering and honoring BJs death.
    This leaves only two choices an illegitimate child either stillborn or alive, brought into this world
    secretly or some rival to their love.
    Other effigies will not do.
  • Jim from London, United KingdomOne thing I have always worried about is that the young preacher said he saw both of them throwing something off the bridge.
    I think if it was a ring or a baby or a doll only one person would have thrown.
    So my suspicion is that the something is too heavy for one to easily throw from the bridge.
    My overactive imagination then suggests it is possibly an adult body.
    I also read that the mother maybe in collusion with the young preacher to black-mail the narrator, an attractive young woman (who else gets frogs down the back?), into marriage.

    OK, a way-out-there guess! The narrator and BJ were lovers but BJ got raped by a man who was then murdered by the narrator who got BJ to help her dispose of the body.
  • James from Jacksonville, FlRe: "The original version of "Ode to Billie Joe" was seven minutes in length. The song was truncated for its single release. The lost "long" version has never been found or released, to the best of my knowledge." from Clarke in Pittsburgh. Anyone know anything about this, or just another urban legend.
  • Rhonda from Houston, TxThis is such an intriguing song. I had not heard it since the 1970's and it just popped into my head the other day and I couldn't

    get it out. I googled the lyrics to remind my self and have been thinking on it for several days now. Here is a really great

    video on youtube of Bobbie Gentry singing the song.


    The dead-pan look on her face and they way she sings it are just priceless. And the way they use the status of the family is

    genius. And this is pre-MTV.

    So what I think happened is that the narrator loved Billie Joe but rejected him because she had higher aspirations for herself

    other than marrying a hillbilly. I think she wanted to make a better life (by maybe becoming a singer) and get out of the delta.

    So she rejected him during an encounter on the bridge where either an engagement ring or perhaps a bouquet of flowers was tossed

    off the bridge. The irony is that after the suicide she is so riddled with sadness and guilt that she can't get on with her life

    and make the better life for herself that she desired in dumping Billie Joe.

    Alternatively it could have been that her mother wanted her to improve her station by marrying Brother Taylor, and that she

    dutifully was trying to please mama, and that is the reason she would not marry Billie Joe. Either way I think she loved him, but

    would not marry him and that is why he killed himself. It is just so sad how she spends her days picking flowers and throwing

    them off the bridge. It just gives me goosebumps.

    I don't think it had anything to do with class, because BJ is clearly the same class as the narrators family. He couldn't be

    lower class because they were probably sharecroppers and their wasn't anything considered lower than a sharecropper in those days

    except a black person. And I don't think BJ was black because if he were he wouldn't have been going to the picture show with her

    brother. I don't think he is a higher class because then the family would have been all approving of the courtship. So I think

    he was the same class as the narrators family, but either the narrator herself, or mama, wanted "better" for her.

    Anyway great song. I love all the comments here and the more outrageous stories are intriguing. I truly mulled over the theory

    about the father and the incest. Definitely plausible, but the the song has a certain sweetness that to me sugguests something

    not so sinister - just sad.
  • Chris from Chicago, IlThe haunting ambivalence of this song is its true brilliance. Obviously the interpretation of the rather simple (on the surface) lyrics keeps people thinking and pondering and arguing decades after its release...how many songs can say that? To me, building on an earlier comment here and the comments of Ms. Gentry, the idea of the object being a baby makes little contextual sense, if for no other reason than the fact that the narrating girl seems genuinely shocked by the news of Billie's death, and there would be little shock in a suicide following the murder of an infant. The doll on the other hand is a symbolic, if not practical, alternative, perhaps showing the transition of the relationship between Billie and the narrator from their innocent child-like relationship when they were younger to a more awkward adult-themed one when they reached puberty. The family seems to know, but perhaps not understand or care (or both), that their relationship has progressed in this way, but they seem to treat it as a "phase" or as less serious than it actually was. Obviously the narrator broods on the loss continuously, and will probably do so until her dying day. As for the other major question, I would hazard a guess that even Ms. Gentry, given her comments, doesn't have a definitive answer as to why Billie Joe killed himself...the sad truth is that with many suicides the survivors never know (I have experienced this personally). I guess that's what drives this song like a nail into the heart for me...it's a girl, indefinitely trapped in her own grief over a death of a loved one that happened for no apparent reason, and whose family (and the rest of the world, for that matter) has zero sympathy for. Not only is this infinitely sad, but it is much more common in real life than many would like to admit.
  • Echo from Phila Suburb, NjI was nine when this song came out and my father played it on a loop. I still remember the lyrics by heart. It was sad and it got to me. My impression as a child was how life goes on and how some people can be nonchalant even after tragedy. I always thought flowers was all that was ever tossed off the bridge. A number of years later, a movie was made to fit the song. In it, Billie Joe was molested and questioned his own sexuality. I think the actual object was a doll but I can't remember why. Maybe a loss of innocence. My impression as a kid, was that she and Billie Joe were childhood friends who shared a secret, but not even she saw the suicide coming. I stick to my childhood interpretation of it because it is my first impression of it.
  • Mary from Louisville, KyI have always like this song and have wondered about the meaning but I guess since Bobbie Gentry didn't have a meaning behind it we just have to imagine what we want.
  • Dave from Williamsburg, VaStupid song? Trite song? Maybe to stupid or trite peoiple perhaps but any song that causes one to question its meaning is indeed a great song. Lyrics debates have been ongoing for years concerning many many songs - and I think it is great. The best class I ever took in college was a Lyrics Interpretation class - what GREAT discussions we had. As to OTBJ, forget the movie - Max Baer (Jethro) was just attempting to make some money off of it. I believe the comments focused on the southern culture in the Mississippi delta are the closest to the truth. Bobbie Gentry said it best .... even she didn't know what it really meant - although she alluded to the casualness of speaking about death in the south; in this particular culture to be exact. It is more of a statement about a hard life than anything else. The mid-60s - deep south - poverty except for a few - daily life - not much hope .... etc ... etc .... could be most anything - and I think that is the point. The listener of the song or the reader of the lyrics takes their perceptions based on their life and interprets from there. That is what makes it a great song!
  • Richard from Lexington, KyThere is actually a reference to the sex of Billie Joe: when brother asks, "Wasn't I talking to him after church last Sunday night."

    It saddens me when people describe this song as "trite" or even "stupidest"....This song is sheer genius.

    On this page alone, I thinks there's at least seven different interpretations--all of them could be possible. Not to mention Ms. Gentry's delivery of the song...you can actually hear the conversation going on yet garner the narrator's reaction to it at the same time.

  • Breeze from Riverside, CaThis is simply one of the best songs ever written, its plain simple delivery is what contributes to the songs success. The mystery of Billie Joe isn't meant to be solved. Gentry was clever, this song's goal is to create dialogue. It brings back such fond memories of my childhood. To the naive who say this song is trite and stupid, your victim of your ignorance. This song is a classic....
  • Andrew from Edmonton, CanadaThis song has haunted me for years and I finally decided to look it up and find out if ANYONE else understands this song. I was surprised that so many people are curious about this story and about what it means. Its pretty obvious that the narrator is a teenage girl. What strikes me is that she is shocked when she hears the news of Billie Joe's death." Child, what's happened to your appetite?...you haven't touched a single bite."
    Everything is ok UNTIL she hears the news.
    "Another sleepy,dusty Delta day.I was out choppin' cotton...at dinner time...we walked back to the house to eat." No indication that anything is wrong. So she had NO idea that Billie Jo would or did commit suicide. One more thing, is anyone curious as to WHY the "...nice,young preacher,",dropped by,invited himself to "...dinner on Sunday." and just happened to drop the bombshell that "...he saw a girl that looked a lot like..." the narrator with her "and Billie Joe...throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.". I think the preacher knows more than he is letting on. Any thoughts????
  • Mark from Byrdstown, TnGreat great song,Gentrys bluesy voice is pure perfection.According to "The Encyclopedia of Country Music" put out by the Country Music Hall of Fame, Gentry did indeed write this song and many many others.She began writing at the age of 7 and many artists,Reba McEntire among them,have recorded Gentrys work.Anyone who questions Gentry's voice or this song should go back to listening to their Britney Spears CDs and let the adults discuss this great story song.

    What the 'something' was that was thrown off the bridge in the song it doesnt say but in the book by the same name the 'something' thrown off the bridge was a doll that the girl in the song and Billie used to play house with.He threw it off when he realized that he was gay and there would never be any baby .
  • Kenn from Portland, OrSometimes a song is just a song. I've written a song called "Raisha", a twisted anagram for the chorus of "...raining heartaches in
    San Anton(io)."
    I've never been to Texas, let alone had a romance or a breakup there.
    So...you never really know.
  • Tonya from Sharon Grove, KyI belive that the narrator and Billie Joe had sex and the girl got pregant. Then the girl and billie joe induced labor.So then they threw the baby over the edge of the bridge.
  • Ariel from Little Rock, Ar I'm a young woman who feels that Bobbie Gentry was quite unusual and such a talent of her time. You don't see many singers and performers like her today. I do believe she wrote "Ode to Billie Joe." There is definitely a quiet charm and sweetness about her. As for the meaning of the song, why try so hard to figure it out? That's the mystery of it all. Musicians shouldn't always give away their secrets. Ariel, Little Rock AR
  • Mike from Detroit, MiI think this song is about a young girl with a crush on an older boy. Her family unknowingly is killing her inside every time they open their mouths at dinner. Moma says "seems like nothin' ever comes to no good on Choctah Ridge." I bet the girl singing the song thinks something good happened up there. Even if they did just throw rocks of the bridge. I don't think the something they were throwing of the bridge matters. I don't think there is any baby. I think the reason for the suicide is complely hidden. I don't think the girl singing the song did anything to make Billie Joe jump of the bridge. Like all young girls with crushes she probably thinks her love will be the best thing for Billy Joe and now he's dead. At the end of the song she is comparing herself to her mother who lost her husband and father of her children. She obviously loved this boy. The matter of fact way her family talks bout the death is a huge contrast to what is going on in this young girls heart. This is the kind of situation were her parents might say "oh it's just a crush you'll get over it." But she doesn't, over a year later she still goes to the bridge and throws flowers. This song is very sad and very sweet just like a young girl with a crush. Haven't we all had a crush on someone?
  • G. from Newport News, VaThe song obviously explains that Southerners who eat black-eyed peas tend to jump off bridges.
  • Adam from Philadelphia, PaIn an interview on the 7/24/07 Fresh Air radio show, Nick Lowe said that singer-songwriter Jim Ford claimed to have written the song, and that "Ode" was more in the style of Ford's songs than Gentry's other work, but did not claim to know for sure. As for why there were no lawyers coming "out of the woodwork," Ford would have had to choose to sue.
  • Jay from Monterey, United StatesThis is indeed a haunting song. It is very reminiscent of the writings of Flannery O'Connor. If you want to read the quintessential Southern Gothic tale, try "A Good Man is Hard to Find," which seems to be picked from the headlines. The Ode to Billie Joe gives you the same ordinariny tone together with the chilling events. Of course "A Good Man" is much darker than the song, but the same effect is there. Flannery O'Connor had died only a few years earlier (1964) and could well have been an influence.
  • Guy from Wellington, New ZealandAn absolutely beautiful song. One of my all-time favourites. Gorgeous voice. Evocative words. Music that is very simple but which totally supports the the central focus of the song which is the haunting, utterly compelling story. To me, her master stroke is to leave you guessing -- there's nothing like a question -- a question is the ultimate metaphor for our very existence.
  • Reg from Kc, MoOne more thing, Cathy made me think of another scenario. Perhaps the narrator is of a poor white family. Brother taylor ran staight to BJ's well-to-do black family and he is forbidden to see her. -Or - how about it's been a reeaally bad day. He is first rejected by her, thus the throwing of the ring and then disowned by his family because of Mr gossip and takes his life rather than live without her. -I say her mother is sensible/sensitive enough to know what was going on but knows the girl is being punished enough by her conscience or lost love... ---- I'm not buying the lesbian theory- the baby or the murder. I say BJ is male. It's a ring (or Col. Mustard in the ballroom with a candlestick..)and then again ...Heck, maybe the something was a condom, he went out and got drunk and then fell in on his way home. :)
    Good comments from Brian, Martjn, John, Diane Rick, probably others btw
  • Reg from Kc, MoI just heard this song earlier for the first time in YEARS and realized I still like it. I am AMAZED all the comments! and that there are others that wondered what 'something' was too. I agree this song - of course written by bobbie gentry- is a great song and Haunting is a good word. Yes, the bridge/ridge is convenient. And Greenday's Billy Joe Armstrong was maybe named after the song. -------- I bet bobbie g. just laughs her ... off that so many people are trying to figure out these lyrics. She probably just couldn't decide while writing it what they were going to throw off the bridge. 'Something' was just a temporary placeholder. Because they used the original demo and she never got a chance to change it. -lol. -------- btw, I always thought it was a ring.
  • Bob from Nyc, NjThe object tossed off the bridge: On one of the usenews newsgroups there was a discussion on what was thrown off the bridge. One possibility was that Billy Joe was wanting to engage the girl to marry her later, but she turned him down, and he tossed the ring off the bridge. A ring would be an object too small for someone distant to make out clearly, but still barely visible. As well as the arm action involved when throwing such an object. And that Billy became dispondent over this later and jumped off the bridge.

    The family seems vaguely aware that Billy Joe had a friendship of sorts with the girl, but not really aware or believing that it was somewhat serious.

    When this song came out I was in 7th grade, and at teh time there was a TV show "Pettycoat Junction" with 3 girl characters with names Betty Joe, Billy Joe and forgot the third name. So I was a bit confused about the gender of Billy Joe of this song. I grew up just outside of New York City, and nobody there had names of this sort.
  • Syl from Brandon, Ms'Haunting' seems to be the most popular and accurate description of this song.
    I have seen the movie and grew up hearing the song.
    BJ and the narrator were involved. He was ready for an 'all the way' relationship - she wasn't.
    Billie Joe got really wasted (drunk) at a local carnival/rodeo. A local sicko took advantage of the situation and molested BJ.
    Later, when they meet, the narrator is ready to have sex with BJ, but BJ is unable to perform.
    He freaks out and kills himself.
    The item being thrown off the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll. It was very dear to her and it was thrown off the bridge by BJ while they were fighting.
  • Whittney from Sardis, TnI love this song. The first time I ever heard it, I just liked the beat. Tonight I decided to download it, and wanted to find out what the song meant. So I came to this site. It is great!!
  • Sonny from Philadelphia, Pa'OTBJ' was written by jim ford, who also wrote 'niki hoeky', which bobbie sang, along with others. he nd was bobbie's boyfriend for a while, too.

  • John from Fort Worth, TxI see I've commented on this song before so I'll relate an amusing memory. When I was a small kid I sang this song again and again whether I was listening to it or not. I wasn't familiar with the word "preacher" at the time so I would sing, "That nice young creature, Brother Taylor dropped by today..." until my sister heard me one time and corrected me between peals of laughter.
  • John from Fort Worth, TxI'm 45 and I loved this song in it's day, when I was 7. It was a huge hit at the time. Everybody was talking about it. It was played constantly on the radio and it was referenced many times on TV. I got a 45 rpm of it so I could hear it and sing it again and again. In the more than 35 years since the song was released, it still retains it's haunting beauty and depth. I'm from Texas and the tenor of the lyrics is so much like we talk here.
  • Modgirl from Smyrna, GaAmazing, all these comments. Shows what a powerful song this is.
  • Pandora from Sion, SwitzerlandI have never heard the original version of this song, and until recently did not know it existed - but for some years now, I have been haunted by the French version, as sung by Joe Dassin. In this one, the narrator is a young man, and the suicide is a girl called Marie-Jeanne. The translation is extraordinarily faithful to the original (I am bi-lingual, and a professional translator myself), but the change of gender does give a particular twist to the mystery. In fact, it imposes the "dead baby" interpretation, in a way that the original song only superficially suggests.
    Dassin's sensitive rendering of the song makes the banality of the family's reactions all the more poignant, in the face of the grief - or guilt - that the narrator is unable to express: either because he is inarticulate, or because there is some compelling reason for him to conceal his involvement with Marie-Jeanne. It's a painful, beautiful, disturbing, thought-provoking song, and I won't rest now till I have managed to get hold of a copy of Bobbie Gentry's origial recording.
  • Timothy from North Hempstead, NyI don't get the impression that this family is black. They are as poor as the blacks, but put on some typical airs of southern politeness and propriety. The family is not necessarily as unfeeling as has been suggested. For the father,life is about hardship and work. Rub some mud on it and stop crying. He makes no mention of Billy Joe's race, just that he had no sense. That's not a horrible description, perhaps just describing a practical joker or a dreamer. The brother is disturbed about it--how could it have happened when everything seemed so normal even in the last week: "It don't seem right." The mother seems to express some genuine compassion and upset about the matter: "It's a shame anyhow." The young preacher is trying to learn more about what happend, and seems to have some interest in the narrator/daughter. The mother in the second part of her talk is trying to stimulate a response in her daughter. She does sense that there was something going on between the daughter and Billy Joe. Since the daughter will not say, no one else in the town goes any further to dredge up the secret of what was going on and what happened. Affair? Murder? Suicide? They are willing to let the muddy waters under the Tallahatchie Bridge keep that a secret forever.
  • Michelle from Wilmington, DeDo you know that I'm 36 yrs old and this year was the very first time I've ever heard the song and I loved it!!! It provokes thought which ALOT of songs of today don't. Bobbie gives just enough info, and leaves you wanting to know what else happend in this story. What really was the intention of "that nice young preacher brother Taylor"? Was he trying to get her in trouble by telling that he'd saw her and Bill Joe throwing something off the bridge? Town gossip I suppose? At any rate I LOVE this song and hope to goodness I can find it on CD!
  • Courtney from Campbell, CaGreat Song,
  • Brian from Sydney, CanadaSheryl Crow does a beautiful and true cover of this song during her 'Storytellers' appearance. There is a woman who is better than any to sing in such a husky, bluesy southern voice as Bobbie Gentry did.
  • Stephanie from Sumner, MsI was born and raised in Tallahatchie County and I believe this song is a mystery and will never totally be understood by anyone.
  • Chris from Manchester, EnglandUpdate to my previous note re. Choctaw Ridge - this should have been WEST of Batesville - not east!
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesLet me begin this comment by stating that I have never seen the film and don't want to. Gentry was briefly interviewed by a music magazine after the song came out. She went on record as saying that the 'something' thrown off the bridge was 'symbolic, and not a baby, as most people seem to think'. It never even occurred to me when I heard the song; from the end lyric, I assumed she and Billy Joe had thrown flowers into the water together, in a quiet courtship. I always thought the young preacher was a gossip, and perhaps jealous, since he reports what he saw back to the mother, and perhaps made it -sound- suspicious. I know communities like those. Either people are constantly minding one another's business, or they're too exhausted from overwork to care deeply about anything. Only the narrator is badly shaken about the loss of her friend, while the mother is genuinely puzzled about why she isn't eating. Life goes on, after all, and there's cotton to be chopped.
  • John from Fort Worth, TxThe real hook that always intrigued me was the subtle conversation around the dinner table, while the family is together eating, that Billy Joe McAllister killed himself. That would certainly have been a topic of conversation for folks who knew about it yet were outside the loop. The narrator, however, seemed to know much more but kept it to herself, of course. I believe the song was about the great pain one can suffer as a young person while enduring it whenever necessary.
  • John from Fort Worth, TxThis song also haunted me as a child. It came out when I was 6/7 years old. I listened to the record and sang along with it because I felt compelled to as a kid. I, too have always wondered what that "somethin'" that Mama said Brother Taylor saw "a girl who looked a lot like [the narrator] up on Chocktaw Ridge" throwing something something with Billy Joe off the Tallahachee Bridge, was. Even as a small child I understood this part to be of great importance. I didn't care for the movie version of the story. It could have been so much better and wouldn't have been forgotten (the movie, not the song).

    Also, considering what we know from the song, what about the narrator spending so much time by the end picking flowers "up on Chocktaw Ridge" only to drop them into the river OFF THE BRIDGE.
  • Klaatu69 from Kingaroy, AustraliaThis song haunted me as a child. Probably because of my Catholic upbringing I always thought the "something" thrown from the bridge was a dead baby, the product of an abortion carried out on the narrator by her boyfriend at her urging ... he later felt terrible remorse and killed himself at the same spot ... it's obvious her family would never have accepted him into the family as "nothing ever good" comes from Choctaw ridge, he "never had a lick a sense" and her mother was trying to line her up with that "nice young preacher".
  • Jay from Brooklyn, NyListen to the third verse: "And wasn't I talking to him after church last Sunday night", and "I saw him yesterday at the sawmill on Chocktaw Ridge". Billie Joe is male. I have often wondered what it was that the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the bridge, and speculated it was a baby. Billie Joe's suicide makes sense in this context. He was consumed by guilt over the murder. As far as the baby being the result of an incestuous relationship between the narrator and her father, and the father killing Billie Joe, and the narrator killing her father in retaliation, there is no evidence of this in the lyrics.
  • Mark from Lancaster, OhThis is a song with academic pre-requisites. It really pays to know something about the share-cropper culture of the old Mississippi Delta region, a dead-flat area of rich soil, great wealth and legendary poverty.

    We've visited the area several times, though we're certainly not experts. There is, however, a modern bridge in Greenwood, Mississippi that bears a plaque to inform everyone that it is the "Ode To Billy Joe Bridge." Given that the song is fiction, this is an interesting bit of lore, but it has to do with the movie, which starred an older bridge. For reasons of safety and asthetics, the state highway people tore the old one down and replaced it with a slightly weird-looking version that's adapted to survive the frequent floods in the area.

    We came on it by accident in 1989. There's a farm nearby where you can pick your own blueberries. Also make sure you stop at the Cottonlandia Museum, and generally take in the ambience of one of the world's weirdest landscapes, populated by some of the finest people on Earth.

    As to the gender issue, I should point out that the chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Mississippi State University was the legendary Billie Joe Ball, and he is most definitely male.
  • Vanessa from Pasadena, TxThis song is very haunting to me. Until I read the comments from others on this web sight, I did not realize others where haunted by it too. I was 5 years old in 1967. I was born and raised in Richland, Mississippi. This song was used to try to harm me, off a bridge in Byram, Mississippi called the "Swinging Bridge". It was on December 20, 1967. The people who tried to harm me were addicted to this song. I would hear it every day playing on our old record player. I was to young to realize that mental problems, vodka, and a song would cause these people to change my life forever. Of course I do not blame the song. It still is one of the best song ever.
  • Timothy Lambert from Washburn, MoI believe that the song tells of a murder that Billie Joe and the Young Girl commited. The thing they were throwing off the bridge was the body of the victim. Billie Joe was at the sawmill commiting the murder when the brother saw him. He commited suicide because he did not want to go to jail and try to live down the murder. The girl had "Lost her appetite" because of the horrific thing she and Billie Joe did, which was killing someone on the saw mill.

    Timothy-Washburn, Missouri
  • Kc from Raleigh, NcI first time I heard this song was when I was about 5 years old, but not by Bobbie Gentry. It was actually covered by Diana Ross and the Supremes on their "Reflections" LP that my father owned, to which I used to listen. When I heard Bobbie's version many years later, I hated it at first, because I thought it was corny. Now it's the opposite. Diana Ross really didn't do much justice to the song. To this day, though, I don't understand why people want to know or even care what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. To me, it's never been of any significance. There have been discussions that the family in question were a Black family, and I have often wondered that as well. There's a reference in the song about "5 more acres in the lower 40", which makes me think of "40 acres and a mule," which was supposed to be given to freed slaves. The race of the family, however, is insignificant as well. It's a great, haunting song that I don't get tired of.
  • Jacob from Brussels, BelgiumA very funky cover of this song has been recorded by Joe Tex on the album Country Soul. Tex addlibs with chatty comments like "more soulfood" whilst remaining painful. Touching.

    A drawnout, hellraisingly slow cover was done in 1986 by Danish postpunk band Sort Sol. White noise and electric guitars comes to Tallahachie brigde. Almost scary. The album incidentally bears the title "Everything that rises msut converge", taken from the book of US southern genius writer Flannery OConnor.
    . Jake, Brussels
  • Diana from Chambersburg, PaI have an elderly aunt from the delta region (upper middle class..) and she would talk this way. I don't find this to be a conversation following previous confrontation by a controlling person with ambitions for her daughter to marry the preacher. Rather, the writer is employing the southern way of subtle discovery of facts - the parents knew what she was hiding and it came out at dinner. Further preachers used to visit frequently and the visit is merely another way word got back - fast - in the small community. Something happened on the bridge, and it was bad. The parents were not punishing her, but they did not comfort her either - the forbidden aspect is here. Later, everyone had moved on like the seasons - the grind of the wheel of time not sparing the girl further tragedy (her father's death, mother's depression) or relief from the memory. There is the feeling of how life can change in an instant and how an action can have long reaching effects, and how we can't go back and change these poor decisions. Who hasn't felt this in some way?
  • Rick from Seattle, WaI've always been intrigued by this haunting song, both in lyrics and melody. I was a 10 years old, living in the suburb of a Tennessee city when this song came out in 1967. Back then there were only a few AM radio stations in each city, so there was a lot of "cross-over" music played, to appeal to the widest possible audience. This song leaned toward folk/country, but even those who preferred rock/pop music were fascinated by it. The lyrics employed capture a real conversational style which is authentic Southern/rural, (similiar to the style of writing of Samuel Clemmens/Mark Twain). The lyrics also demonstrate the rural southern penchant for entertainment by story-telling, an art form which used to be practiced every evening on the front porch between visiting neighbors (before air conditioning caused people to retreat indoors to more insular and less social lives). Whenever I think of this song, I almost feel the warm humid embrace of a Southern evening, with the crickets singing a rythmic background beat, and the fireflies putting on a fireworks display for our entertainment as the story-telling began.
  • Greg from Victoria, CanadaI used to like this song when it first came out. Nowadays I run to any musical device that plays it to turn it off. Make the bad song go away! What was I thinking...yuck!
  • Matthew from Skippack, PaBob Dylan and the Band recorded a song as kind of a parody, or maybe just an imitation of the lyrical approach to this song, called "Clothesline Saga" which is on the Basement Tapes.

    Also, another distant Bob Dylan connection: the tortured and mutilated body of Emmett Till was thrown off the Tallahatchee Bridge by the murderers. (Dylan wrote a song about the murder.) I always wondered if Billie Joe and his girlfriend song narrator might have been a fictional part of the murderous gang, with the guilt driving Billie Joe to suicide.
  • AnonymousThis is a song that once heard keeps haunting you for ever. And that is exactly what it's all about. Being haunted. By the impossibility of love. By misunderstanding. By taboo. By irreversible loss. By unspeakable tragedy. One of the very best and most heartbreaking ever written. If John Steinbeck Or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have been born in the Mississippi delta they might have come close to this. Roberta Lee Streeter, you are a great soul. That bridge should be restored as a monument with your statue on it.
  • Roy from San Bernardino, CaWhat a Great Song/story!!! It clearly got my attention because my birthday is the third of June. But became quite inspiring. I See it as a 'Point of passage'. When you pour too much passion into just one event or thing in your life you take of a chance on anchoring yourself there emotionally. Creating a life-long cycle of trauma that begins to feel as though it is life.
    I transitioned from Middle to High School When it was released. I had great times before then; but I had to throw them off the 'Tallachacie Bridge' and move on to new experiences. 'Thanks for a larger than life lesson Bobbie Gentry'
  • Nick from Stewart, MsBobby is my first wife's 1'st cousin and the same age. So i know all the children and all their names. She did in fact write OTBJ. She like Johnny Russel, who wrote Red Neck's, White Sox and Blue Ribbon Beer, are product's of rural Mississippi, hills an delta, and having lived their i know first hand how easy it would be to write song's or stories about life experiences.
    Buy Bobby's albums to realy get a grip on her abillity !!!!!!!!!!!! nj, Helena, ar
  • Nick from Stewart, MsBobby is my first wife's 1'st cousin and the same age, so i know first hand who wrote otbj. Bobby is close to William Falkner as a southern song writer of 50/60's, similar to Johnny Russel who later wrote, red neck, white sox's and blue ribbon beer,. They baptised Jesse Taylor in cedder creek last Sunday. Unless u've lived in rual Mississippi or it's delta it would be extremely dificult to fantom the culture of that era.
  • Tom from Las Vegas, NvI can't beleive someone actually thhinks she didn't write the song. Anybody out their claiming they did instead? No!

    Bobbie Lee wrote this song, as she did most of the songs she sang in the late 60s and early 70s. I worked with her in the early 70s at three different Hughes hotels and have the sheet music as just some of the souveners of her and a friendship that remains till this day (10/2005).

    As for the song itself, it is in fact fiction, although Bobbie Lee was born and lived near the Talahatchee Bridge, I went and saw this place in the early 70s with her one two week period. However, those commenting on the "purpose" of the song have got it about 95% correct. It was a comment on the calousness of a poor working family in rural Mississippi. The movie by Max Baer of the same name and with the song as part of the soundtrack is absolutely, 100% purely fiction. What do you expect from Jethro?! This movie is where people get some of the gay guy, teddy bear, yada, yada ideas. Never happened. He even used "Bobbie Lee" as the heroine of the movie, the name Roberta Lee Streeter is called by her close friends and family. Another thing that lead to speculation out of the movie. The movie had to come up with a theatrical reason fro the jump and cannot simply be about the lack of sensitivity in a family. In fact, the movie showed the family as rather "concerned", nothing like the song. Bobbie Lee is still alive, turned 61, has a grown son, and enjoys obscurity from the business. She would find this and the other websites humorous that people still care or are making up ideas about one of her songs. And by the way, just because she allowed Reba McIntire to record Fancy does not mean Roberta Lee Streeter doesn't hold the copyright!
  • Kelli from Cedar Rapids, IaI don't know why everyone seems to think the narrator is upper-class; it refers to her chopping cotten, baling hay, etc. And her Dad mentions plowing. Probably farmers
  • Flamingo from Toronto, CanadaHere's how I see it:

    The father is stern, seems like a practical man, no-nonsense, doesn't show emotion. The brother however is getting more and more worked up as the meal progresses, the reality of what's happened is slowly sinking in.

    The one to watch out for is the mother. She sounds to me like a very ambitious and controlling matriarch, who would have gone to some lengths to break up the secret relationship between her only daughter and an "unsuitable" young man. Very class-conscious. She wants to fix her daughter up with the preacher real bad.

    Mother doesn't care one lick about what happened, and did it on purpose to announce the news in public like that just to shock some sense into her daughter and embarrass her. Sounds to me like the two of them had words about this a while ago, mother is faking innocence, you can smell it a mile away. So maybe mother went to see Billy Joe (or caught the two of them together) and threatened him/them or else firmly refused her daughter's hand. She had something on them, that's for sure. And she has the gall to use the preacher as further leverage, hinting that he also knew about the secret liaison and that he's willing to forgive the narrator and make a decent woman out of her. What she and Billy Joe threw over the ridge was a token of their undying love for each other. Maybe even engagement rings, or a marriage license....

    Mother's plans backfire though. At the end of the song she's lost everything. Her son's gone, her husband too, and she's left with an unmarried, inconsolable daughter who is of no comfort to her. The two are entirely estranged.

  • Flamingo from Toronto, CanadaThe father is stern, seems like a practical man, no-nonsense, doesn't show emotion. The son is getting more and more worked up as the meal progresses, the reality of what's happened is slowly sinking in.

    The one to watch out for is the mother. She sounds to me like a very ambitious and controlling matriarch, who would have gone to some lengths to break up the secret relationship between her only daughter and an "unsuitable" young man. Very class-conscious. She wants to fix her daughter up with the preacher real bad.

    Mother doesn't care one lick about what happened, and did it on purpose to announce the news in public like that just to shock some sense into her daughter and embarrass her. Sounds to me like the two of them had words about this a while ago, mother is faking innocence, you can smell it a mile away. So maybe mother went to see Billy Joe (or caught the two of them together) and threatened him/them or else firmly refused him her daughter's hand. She had something on them, that's for sure. And she has the gall to use the preacher as further leverage, hinting that he also knew about the secret liaison and is willing to forgive the narrator and make a decent woman out of her. What they threw over the ridge was a token of their undying love for each other.

    Mother's plans backfire though, you can tell that at the end of the song. She's lost everything. Her son's gone, her husband too, and she's left with an unmarried, inconsolable daughter who is of no comfort to her. The two are entirely estranged.

  • Glenn from Glasgow, ScotlandI first heard OTBJ when it came out in 1967. I was about ten years old at that time. I have always assumed that BJ and the narrator were throwing the body of a still-born child off The Tallahatchie Bridge. That is my interpretation but, once an author has written anything and presented it to his audience it is up to the members ofthat audience to interpret the piece as they see fit.

    I must say, the possibility that BJ is female (as I understand it "Billie" is the female spelling, at least it is here in Scotland)is intriguing and opens up many more possibilities for interpretation. Glenn
  • Cathy from Weaver, AlI was very young when I first heard Ode to Billy Joe. Even so, I understood that it was about lost love, suicide, and the 'unfeeling' gossip that can spread like wildfire over dinner conversations.

    I grew up in a rural community, which was very similar in 'atmosphere' to the setting given in the song. The gossip about Billy Joe McAlistor and the woman telling the tale felt very familiar -- Choctaw Ridge always struck me as being a poor section of the county; that may have been a community that mostly black folks lived -- I also felt that the young woman was a well-do white; thus in the time frame that the story took place (in the distant past) any romantic involvement would have been a huge scandel.

    How's that for a possible backstory?
  • Jim West from Portland, OrIt's silly to assume that anyone other than Bobbie Gentry wrote this song. It became such an enduring hit that, by now, lawyers would be coming out of the woodwork to represent the "real" author (if it wasn't Gentry). Now, on the "mystery" behind the song, the only mystery I can think about is that people still think there's a mystery behind the song (grin). In 1975, Gentry told author Herman Rauscher that she didn't consider any backstory ... and that the "real" purpose behind the song was to illustrate just how cold and unfeeling family members can be when a tragedy like suicide happens close to home. And, that's just what the dinner table conversation in the song illustrates. So, listeners are basically making up their own mystery backstory. But here's one I've thought of that I haven't seen yet. Note that Wikipedia refers to the song title as "Ode to Billy Joe" ... but here at Songfacts, it's referred to as "Ode to Billie Joe." There is nothing in the song that specifically indicates the sex of Billy Joe (or is it Billie Joe). Note that the reverend saw them tossing "something" off the bridge but wan't specific. Perhaps what the reverend saw them tossing was "their clothes" ... and perhaps the two young people, both girls, were Lesbians. It's just as good as any theory I've heard ... and the inability to reconcile sexual orientation is a powerful reason why some young people commit suicide.
  • Michael from London, EnglandIn the film the two characters, Billie Joe and the Narrator of the song, have a struggle and accidentaly throw a rag doll off the bridge, which is seen by the priest. Ive heard it said that this represents youth and the innocence of it, which the characters throw away throught the film/song!
  • Brian from Meriden, CtOne of the great records. I don't care if she threw radioactive waste into the river. Not to make light of the poignant lyrics but that girl could sing her ass off in a style that (forgive the political incorrectness) I never dreamed she was white. The atmosphere of the recording had such a feel of the real rural, poor South in a way that erases the color line anyway.
  • Randy from St. Pete, Florida, FlThe "something" that was thrown off the bridge WAS a child. The preacher said he saw her AND Billy Joe throwing it, so it must have been something that took two people to throw.

    Here's what I think happened:
    Bobbie had an incestuous relationship with her father. The child was the result. She asked Billy Joe for help because she had no one else to turn to. Billy Joe helped her get rid of the child (either an abortion or live birth) by throwing it off the bridge. When Bobbie's father found out that Billy Joe knew, he killed him, making it look like a suicide.

    We learn later on in the song that Bobbie's father "died last spring." I wonder if it really was the virus that was to blame. Perhaps Bobbie hastened his demise? Bobbie may have been developing feelings for Billy Joe at the time (or after) he was killed and this was her revenge on her father. She now spends her time mourning the love she never got to experience (Billy Joe) and the child she never got to know.

    I also have to wonder if MAYBE Bobbie's mother eventually learned of the father/daughter relationship and its result and that's the REAL reason why she's do devastated. Perhaps she even had a hand in his demise.

    Paul Drake
    St. Pete
  • Sarah from Leland, MsBobbie Gentry is a distant relative of mine and she did write this song. Sarah, Leland, Ms
  • Wes from Springfield, VaI share everyone's puzzlement. See http://wesclark.com/am/carroll_county_accident.html
  • A from Sry, PeruI did this song as a monologue for a drama class, it was great because everyone was absolutely hooked and then at the end I finished and everyone just burst into "well what does that mean?" and "huh?!" and "how how how?" I love this song
  • Shellie from Cleves, OhWell...this is my ODE TO DAVE ROBERTO. My husband committed suicide 6 years ago this coming week. I've been feeling depressed with the tragic yearly anniversary approaching - so I thought I'd watch some tv to take my mind off of things. I flipped on the tv - and there's ODE TO BILLE JOE playing! I haven't seen, heard or thought of this song since I was a kid! And at the time - had no clue what it was even about!?!? Now I am reminded even more of UN-NECESSARY AND TRAGIC deaths of those who can't see past tomorrow. Think of the MANY times in your life when you thought something was the end of the world - but it wasn't!!! Talk with someone and/or believe that you are bigger than your problems. Tomorrow is another day!!! Please don't ever give up or give in. Those that are left behind spend their entire lives picking up the pieces of the mess that is left behind - and are left to wonder if it would be easier to just join you!?!? Don't do this to them. Don't do it to your self. Dave left behind a wife and 2 small children that ADORED him - and whose life will NEVER be the same. Take care of yourself and each other!!! Sincerely, Shellie from Cincinnati.
  • Kamasu from Las Vegas, NeThose who claim that Bobbie Gentry didn't write "Ode to Billie Joe," do you know for a fact who did?
  • Melanie from Lawrence, KsThe narrator and Billie Joe were secret lovers. They would meet in their special place, the bridge. Perhaps she rejected him. The family just goes on, while she mourns at the bridge for years to come. Love lost.
  • Craig from Madison, WiA very spooky song, as if William Faulkner wrote an episode of the Waltons. Never has an Ode said so little about the subject, but by laying the title above the song one can sense the enormous loss the narrator has suffered, the first of many losses. A different portrait of southern rural life than one normally gets. It's not the gossipy townsfolk. Instead, the family seems very midwestern in their passively skimming the topic of a local curiosity, and please pass the potatoes. The narrator hearing the banter, and not being able to talk, because you don't talk of private matters with the family. Very spooky in it's dark realism.
  • Craig from Madison, WiIn the opening scene "Reservoir Dogs" Nice Guy Eddie analyze the song, a song he had heard on KBLY for the first time in years, making him come to his (probably incorrect) deduction that the narrator threw Billy Joe off the bridge.
  • Conrad from Big Spring, TxGreat song plain and simple. You can't help but like the vocals by Bobby Gentry. Rhapsody and Harmony. The movie tells it like it is Starring Robbie Benson. Watch it listen to the song then comment!.
  • Aj from Cleveland, GaThis song scares me, but in a strange way it's fun.
  • Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, ScIt is not a stupid song! What are y'all thinking? What a sad song, though.
  • Clarke from Pittsburgh, PaThe original version of "Ode to Billie Joe" was seven minutes in length. The song was truncated for its single release. The lost "long" version has never been found or released, to the best of my knowledge.
  • Michael from Flint, MiI wouldn't call the song "Country".Even though it is based "in the Country" with a country vibe,I'd call it "Folk".This is a great song...you young'uns look at the description....no,not about "Green Day" this was released in 1967...A highly intelligent song, based on a story,and not at all obvious what the writer's (and singer's)intent is.This song makes the listener think.I went over the Tallahatchee river in 1989 heading South...(on the Freeway),and thought about this song.On the way back North the next day,I was in an old car ('62 Chevy II)that my step-dad bought.When we crossed that bridge,the song was playing on the AM station.Of course,the song wasn't written about the freeway bridge!I'll never forget that,though.
  • Julian from Oakland, ArDespite it's country soung it is morer often played on oldies/rock stations.
  • Mike from Arvada, CoUm...Question: Is Bobbie talking about Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer of Green Day?
  • Roberta from Boston, MaI am a dedicated rock fan, but have always loved this song. I would love to know what it was really about- the part about the singer being seen on Choctaw Ridge with Billy Joe throwing something off the bridge has always given me goosebumps. Although noone can touch Bobby Gentry, there is a good version by a band called Phranc which can be purchased at i-tunes.
  • Martijn from Helmond, NetherlandsI wonder about the tastes of anybody who thinks this is a trite or stupid song. The music may not be to your liking, that is a matter of taste anyway, but the lyrics are among the best American song writing has ever presented to the world. This is a great little story about the way people react to a small tragedy that doesn't affect them directly, although there's a shadow of a suggestion that the singer and Billy Joe may have been romantically involved, as in the lines:
    "And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?" and "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."
    The fact that it doesn't state the reason for Billy Joe's suicide makes the song only more haunting. It forces the listener to identify even more with the characters if he/she wants to try and understand what really went on. Who was the girl with Billy Joe and what were they throwing off the bridge? Did it even have something to do with his suicide? Questions that remain unanswered but that cause this song to remain in the listener's mind long after the last note has faded.
  • Kitten from Nyc, United StatesI simply have to agree with James from Plano!!!
  • Ia from Minneapolis, MnIve just been to the town of Greenwood, MS which is where the Tallahatchie bridge used to be, and you can really feel what she expressed in her song so well. She sang it exactly how it feels to be there. Shes a great story teller in many of her songs, and often wrote so well about towns of Mississippi.
  • Rachel from Castleford, EnglandMy grandma had the single "ode to billy joe" and as a child i heard it once and was addicted. Now my gran has passed away i own the single and am grateful for it, it reminds me of good days even though the song is sad. I like it for that but also Bobbie's voice is fantastic. there isn't a female singer today who can touch it. I will play it as long as I or the vinyl lasts! Also it's a good hairbrush song! I think i'm the best singer in the world when it's playing!
  • Dj from Denver, CoYou haven't heard "Condition Red", or "D.O.A", or "Wildfire", or anything by Dan Hill, have you? I like the song, but maybe my birthday being June 3 has something to do with it!
  • John from Seattle, WaI always thought it was too easy that every verse ended with "ridge" to rhyme with "bridge." But... the only other word I can think of is "fridge."
  • Sandra from Mountain Home, IdI don't think this song is stupid at all!! I was a little girl when it came out and didn't understand exactly what went on, but I do remember it was haunting. The way Bobby Gentry sang it in a slow, almost husky voice, was the perfect delivery. It takes you back to those dusty, hot summers in the south. As I grew older I came to realize that it was about something forbidden; Bobby Gentry doesn't really say and that's the whole draw of the song. It gives everyone something to speculate...
    -Sandra, Mountain Home, ID
  • John from Bedford, MaGentry did indeed write this song, and it's not so stupid if you listen to the lyrics.
  • Deana from Indianapolis, InGentry didn't even write this trite song
  • James from Plano, TxThis is the stupidest song I ever heard.
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