"'Ode to Billie Joe" is a 1967 ode song written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry (born July 27, 1944), a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single, released in late July, was a number-one hit in the United States, and became a big international seller. The song is ranked #412 on Rolling Stones list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry and one win for arranger Jimmie Haskell.[1]


 [hide*1 Plot

Plot[edit source]Edit

The song is a first-person narrative that reveals a Southern Gothic tale in its verses by including the dialog of the narrator's family at dinnertime on the day that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Throughout the song, the suicide and other tragedies are contrasted against the banality of everyday routine and polite conversation.

The song begins with the narrator and her brother returning, after morning chores, to the family house for dinner (on June 3). After cautioning them about tracking in dirt, "Mama" says that she "got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge" that "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," apparently to his death.

[1][2]In this photograph from the November 10, 1967 issue ofLife magazine, Bobbie Gentry strolls across the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi. The bridge collapsed in June 1972.[2]

At the dinner table, the narrator's father is unsurprised at the news and says, "Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o' sense; pass the biscuits, please" and mentions that there are "five more acres in the lower forty I got to plow." Although her brother seems to be taken aback ("I saw him at the sawmill yesterday.... And now you tell me Billie Joe has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"), he's not shocked enough to keep him from having a second piece of pie. Late in the song, Mama questions the narrator's complete change of mood ("Child, what's happened to your appetite? I been cookin' all mornin' and you haven't touched a single bite") and then recalls a visit earlier that morning by Brother Taylor, the local preacher, who mentioned that he had seen Billie Joe and a girl who looked very much like the narrator herself and they were "throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

In the song's final verse, a year has passed, during which the narrator's brother has married and moved away ("bought a store in Tupelo"). Also, her father died from a viral infection, which has left her mother despondent. The narrator herself now visits Choctaw Ridge often, picking flowers there to drop from the Tallahatchie Bridge onto the murky waters flowing beneath.

Questions arose among the listeners: what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Speculation ran rampant after the song hit the airwaves, and Gentry said in a November 1967 interview that it was the question most asked of her by everyone she met. She named flowers, a ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted baby as the most often guessed items. Although she knew definitely what the item was, she would not reveal it, saying only "Suppose it was a wedding ring." "It's in there for two reasons," she said. "First, it locks up a definite relationship between Billie Joe and the girl telling the story, the girl at the table. Second, the fact that Billie Joe was seen throwing something off the bridge – no matter what it was – provides a possible motivation as to why he jumped off the bridge the next day."[3]

When Herman Raucher met Gentry in preparation for writing a novel and screenplay based on the song, she confessed that she had no idea why Billie Joe killed himself.[4] Gentry has, however, commented on the song, saying that its real theme was indifference:[5]

Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of peoples' reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.

The bridge mentioned in this song collapsed in June 1972.[2] It crossed the Tallahatchie River at Money, about ten miles (16 km) north of Greenwood, Mississippi, and has since been replaced. The November 10, 1967 issue of LifeMagazine contained a photo of Gentry crossing the original bridge.

Recording[edit source]Edit

"Ode to Billie Joe" was originally intended as the B-side of Gentry's first single recording, a blues number called "Mississippi Delta", on Capitol Records. The original recording, with no other musicians backing Gentry's guitar, had eleven verses lasting seven minutes, telling more of Billie Joe's story. The executives realized that this song was a better option for a single, so they cut the length by almost half and re-recorded it with a string orchestra. The shorter version left more of the story to the listener's imagination, and made the single more suitable for radio airplay.[6][7]

Adaptations[edit source]Edit

The song's popularity proved so enduring that in 1976, nine years after its release, Warner Bros. commissioned author Herman Raucher to adapt it into a novel and screenplay, Ode to Billy Joe. The poster's tagline, which treats the film as being based on a true story and even gives a date of death for Billy (June 3, 1953), led many to believe that the song was based on actual events.[4] In Raucher's novel and screenplay, Billy Joe kills himself after a drunken homosexual experience, and the object thrown from the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll.

The film, directed and produced by Max Baer, Jr, was released in 1976, starring Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor.

Billy Joe's story is analyzed in Professor John Howard's history of gay Mississippi entitled Men Like That: A Queer Southern History as an archetype of what Howard calls the "gay suicide myth".

Translations[edit source]Edit

In 1967 American/French singer-songwriter Joe Dassin had much success with a French translation of the song titled "Marie-Jeanne", that tells exactly the same story almost word for word, only with the characters reversed. The narrator is one of the sons of the household, and the character who committed suicide is a girl named Marie-Jeanne Guillaume.

A quick overview of the translated names and places:

Bobbie Gentry Joe Dassin
June 3 June 4
Billie Joe McAllister Marie-Jeanne Guillaume
Tallahatchie Bridge Pont de la Garonne
Choctaw Ridge Bourg-les-Essonnes
Brother Taylor unnamed: just "the sister of that young priest"
Tom Le Grand Nicolas
Becky Thompson unnamed
Tupelo unnamed

Besides the change in character names and locations, there are also obvious changes to various environments like the food, the crops, etc. For example, instead of "Choppin' cotton", the narrator took care of the vineyards. The setting is a fictitious small town in southwest France. The River Garonne, however, is real.

In 1967, a Swedish translation by Olle Adolphson titled "Jon Andreas visa" was recorded by Siw Malmkvist..[8] It is faithful to the story in "Ode to Billie Joe", but has changed the setting to rural Sweden. The name of Billie Joe has been changed to the Swedish name Jon Andreas.

A German translation titled "Billy Joe McAllister" was released in 1978 by Wencke Myhre.

Chart positions[edit source]Edit

Bobbie Gentry[edit source]Edit

Chart (1967) Peak position
U.S. Billboard Easy Listening 7
U.S. Billboard R&B Singles 8
U.S. Billboard Country Singles 17
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 1

Margie Singleton[edit source]Edit

Chart (1967) Peak position
U.S. Billboard Country Singles 39

Parodies[edit source]Edit

Bob Dylan's "Clothes Line Saga" (recorded in 1967; released on the 1975 album The Basement Tapes) is a parody of the song. It mimics the conversational style of "Ode to Billie Joe" with lyrics concentrating on routine household chores.[9] The shocking event buried in all the mundane details is the revelation that "The Vice-President's gone mad!". Dylan's song was originally titled 'Answer to "Ode"'.[10]

A comedy group named "Slap Happy" recorded "Ode to Billy Joel" in the 1980s, which was featured on the Dr. Demento show. In this version, the singer is alleged to have jumped from the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge.

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