It woke me up out of a sound sleep. What did Billy Joe Macallister really throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? It’s been nearly 50 years since Bobbie Gentry produced the enigmatic ballad that had a whole generation wondering. Someone must have worked it out by now!
Thanks to the miracle of internet, many of the mysteries of my youth have been revealed. One no longer has to sit next to the record player, transposing lyrics, repeating them over and over trying to glean the secrets of the words; one can find them on the web,and even play the song through the computer or phone as well. It’s a new age. I knew the answer would be there.
But it wasn’t. Though speculation ran from flowers to a baby, no one had ever gotten Gentry to commit. In 1976, a film was made based on the song, it’s interpretation including a homosexual theme. Herman Raucher, the screenplay writer, asked Bobbie Gentry about the song:
“I said, ‘You don’t know why he jumped off the bridge?’
She said, ‘I have no idea.’”
The web wasn’t a total loss, however. As I surfed on, I discovered something even more intriguing: the real meaning of the song itself.
Recently a handwritten page of Gentry’s original lyrics had been found. It began with a verse that she never recorded with the first line crossed out.
People don't see Sally Jane in town any more.
There's a lot o' speculatin', she's not actin' like she did before.
Some say she knows more than she's willin' to tell.
But she stays quiet and a few think it's just as well.
No one really knows what went on up on Choctaw Ridge
the day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
—University of Mississippi's Archives and Special Collections
In the published lyrics, Sally Jane became the unnamed female narrator who was only present with Billy Joe throwing something off the bridge. What this means has more to do with the nature of the ballad than the story. The story, itself, has so many stark dramatic elements – Billy Joe’s apparent suicide and the bridge-tossing mystery, that the true meaning was lost on the youth of the mid-sixties, and has been lost ever since. Blogger Jon Pennington writes:
“The song is nominally about Billie Joe McAllister's suicide, but no informative details of the suicide ever emerge. Instead, we only learn about the suicide indirectly from a narrator who hears bits and pieces emerge in between mundane dinner table conversation between Mama and Papa. But the whole point is that Mama and Papa's dinner table conservation will never help you solve the mystery, because Mama and Papa not only don't know enough about Billy Joe McAllister to answer that question, they simply don't care.” — Jon Pennington
So here is the real deal:
It doesn’t matter what they threw off the bridge. More ominous than Billy Joe’s suicide, more menacing than the couple throwing something off the bridge, more heartbreaking than the lonely narrator picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge is the blatant apathy of the family to the tragedies going on around them. The true theme of the song is indifference.
“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.” —Wikipedia
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and we walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered at the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And brother said he 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 just 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 Tallahatchie Bridge"
Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
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 wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge