Another Sleepy, Dusty Delta Day

If you’re a person of a certain age—older than sixty, let’s say—you probably know some of the lyrics to the 1967 megahit “Ode to Billie Joe.” You might even know all of them.

The mysterious ballad, written and performed by Mississippi native Bobbie Gentry, tends to resurface every year around this time. Social media feeds are filled with pictures purported to be the Tallahatchie Bridge and the unforgettable first line of the song: It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day…

And my mind always goes back to Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, where we eighth graders were all abuzz trying to figure out what in the world the newly- released song meant.

The first question: Who was narrating the story? What was her name? Was she Billie Joe MacAllister’s girlfriend? His fiancé? Or just a casual acquaintance?  Where in Mississippi were the Tallahatchie River and Choctaw Ridge? How high above the water was the bridge? And the question that trumped all others: What were the narrator and Billie Joe throwing into the muddy water on the day the nice young preacher Brother Taylor saw them together?

Some of us—the girls, mostly–thought it was a ring or maybe a bouquet of wildflowers. Others guessed that Billie Joe didn’t want to go to Vietnam and was destroying his draft card. Still others were sure it was a bottle of pills, though no one could name what kind of pills. Could it have been a Bible? Could it have been some other book? Perhaps it was a gun.

The most preposterous guess was that the couple was tossing their newborn baby into the river. Even though I hadn’t yet turned thirteen, I was certain that theory was wrong. I had a one-year-old sister and I knew from having been around my mother every day for the whole nine months she was pregnant that there was no way you could keep such a thing secret for long. Wouldn’t the narrator’s parents and everyone else in town have noticed her baby bump? And if it was too early for a bump, are listeners supposed to believe she secretly give birth to a premature baby and then schemed with Billie Joe to throw it off the bridge?


Bobbie Gentry herself has said she intended for the object thrown from the bridge to be purposefully vague and that what it was is irrelevant. “The song created listener curiosity and that’s what I was after,” she said. “I’m saddened that listeners were so obsessed about the thrown-away object that few seemed to mourn the suicide of young Billie Joe, which is the real story.”

In preparation for this column, I did some research about places named in the song. The Tallahatchie River is 230 miles long and meanders through the state until it eventually merges with the Yazoo and then the Mississippi River. It’s  infamous in real life because the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American youth falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, was thrown into the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi shortly after he was murdered in August, 1955. But Emmett’s remains were thrown from the Black Bayou Bridge, not the Tallahatchie Bridge.

And, yes, there really is a Choctaw Ridge.

I found the 1976 movie “Ode to Billie Joe” streaming for free on Tubi TV and watched it last week for the first time since its release. The only good thing I can say is that young Robby Benson, who plays the title character, is still the most beautiful boy I’ve ever laid eyes on. Now I know that the narrator’s name is Bobbie Lee. Unimaginative, right? And—yes!–I know what (according to the scriptwriters) the couple was throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And why Billie Joe jumped.

But, like Bobbie Gentry, I’ll never tell. If you want answers, you’ll have to suffer through the whole dreadful hour and 46 minutes for yourself.

(June 15, 2024)