Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why Billy Joe Jumped

A mystery that has always plagued me can be found in the lyrics of a 1967 song by Bobbie Gentry called "Ode to Billy Joe." The song is narrated by an anonymous girl who knows Billy Joe McAllister, and in fact was seen with him right before he "jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Billy Joe's suicide has always bothered me; the song neither reveals why he jumps, nor what mysterious reason he and the girl had for "throwin' somethin'" off the bridge before his death.

Many people were intrigued by Gentry's song. Herman Raucher adapted it into a novel, in which he suggested a reason for the title figure's suicide--this was later made into a film starring Robby Benson. The book and film changed the spelling of the main character's name from "Billy" to "Billie" for reasons unknown.

The book and film, though, offer only one possibility for Billy Joe's death, and Bobbie Gentry, who wrote the song, claimed that she did not know why Billy Joe died. Therefore, the song remains an unsolved mystery, as do these compelling characters that Gentry created. More intriguing than Billy Joe is the girl who tells the story--the girl who obviously has all sorts of secrets, and spends her time throwing flowers "into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

For those who remember this song, I wonder how you interpreted it back in the days when it was played on the radio? And if you've never heard it before, what would your theory for Billy Joe's suicide be, based on the enigmatic lyrics of the song?

(This is an encore post of one that ran on Mysterious Musings in 2009).


Sandra Parshall said...

Given the era and setting, I think Billy Joe was struggling with his sexual identity. The girl was his confidante. He killed himself in despair, believing he would never be accepted by his family and community for the person he really was.

JJM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JJM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JJM said...

But then what was thrown into the river from the bridge?

At the time, my friends were quite convinced what was thrown off the bridge was the body of a still-born or aborted illegitimate child; Billy Joe was the father, consumed with guilt; the narrator with the flowers was the mother.

Of course, at the time, to think it might be a sexual identity problem, you'd have to be someone with such a problem -- especially if you mean transgenderism. Despite the fooferal caused by the Christine Jorgensen case, the public as a whole wasn't all that conscious of such things, and even just plain old gay subjects didn't tend to come up in songs. Trust me, I can still sing along with just about all of them (I was in high school when that song came out), and would have noticed something ... well, coded. --Mario R.

JJM said...

(Apologies -- no idea at all why one push of the
comment button resulted in triplication.)--Mario R.

Julia Buckley said...

Mario, I remember my schoolmates thinking the same--that somehow a baby was involved.

But based on the limited evidence in the song, I still think that their crime could have been just about anything, and the evidence, too, could have been anything.

In addition, perhaps it was just Billy Joe's crime, and even though she promised not to tell, he ultimately gave in to the guilt. ?

Judy said...

I always thought it was the case of a baby being thrown first, but now you wonder if maybe it was a gun or a knife. Billy might not have been able to live with himself after a crime, after all.