Updated date:

The Story Behind the Song "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

Photo of country singer Bobbie Gentry taken in 1970.

Photo of country singer Bobbie Gentry taken in 1970.

"It was the Third of June..."

This song still has a way of capturing you as soon as you hear the opening chords. Released in the Summer of Love, "Ode to Billie Joe" began its trip up the charts the first week of August 1967, rising 50 spots by the following week, and reaching the top position on the charts by the end of that month. So popular was this tune that the album it appeared on actually pushed The Beatles Sgt. Pepper from the number one spot on the Billboard album chart.

"Ode to Billie Joe" quickly became the topic of water cooler conversations across the nation. What was thrown from the Tallahatchie Bridge and what on earth made young Billie Joe McAllister jump from the bridge to his death?

Short Biography of Bobbie Gentry

Born Roberta Lee Streeter, Bobbie was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi but was raised by her mother in California. Bobbie drew inspiration for her songs from her early life in Mississippi, and this song is no exception, with Choctaw Ridge, the Tallahatchie Bridge and Tupelo all being mentioned.

Bobbie began singing in church when she was a young girl, and her Grandmother, with whom she lived until the age of 13, actually sold a cow to buy a piano for Bobbie. Bobbie taught herself to play guitar, bass and banjo, and by the time she moved to California to live with her mother, she was already writing her own songs.

Bobbie continued to hone her singing and songwriting skills, appearing at clubs and recording and sending out demo tapes while attending the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She landed her first recording contract in 1964, and recorded a duet with rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds.

Bobbie had 11 singles that reached the charts in the U.S., but none ever achieved the success that Ode to Billy Joe did.

"Ode to Billie Joe"

When Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon heard the demo for Ode, he knew right away that it had huge potential to become a hit record. According to the song’s arranger, the song was originally seven minutes long, and was meant to be the “B” side of a 45 RPM record, with a tune called “Mississippi Delta” featured on the “A” side.

Capitol bought the rights to the song for $10,000, and only arranged for a string section to be part of the song because, as part of the deal to purchase the rights, they had agreed that they would not add a rhythm section. The string arrangement for the song went on to win a Grammy award.

Capitol also had to cut the length of the original song down to under four minutes. In those days, AM radio format was geared to Top 40 hits, which meant that all songs were pretty much the same length and generally under four minutes. According to the “Billboard Book of Number One Hits”, Kelly Gordon was the one responsible for cutting the song to size by removing several verses. The final version of the song that made it to vinyl actually ran for four minutes and 13 seconds, making it the longest number-one hit in 1967. You can still find it on vinyl (used), but it is also included in The Very Best of Bobbie Gentry. Released in 2005, this is a wonderful collection of songs, including a really heartfelt version of "In the Ghetto."

Gentry’s original handwritten draft for the song is now part of the collection held by the University of Mississippi, with Gentry donating the draft to the University’s Faulkner room in 1973. In the original draft version of the song, a girl by the name of Sally Jane Ellison is part of the story, and may hold the key to why Billie Joe jumped from the bridge.

In the draft, Billie Joe is spelled “Billy Jo.” The song itself as well as the album that the song appeared on both used the "Billie Joe" spelling. It is unclear why Capitol chose to use that particular version.

Bobbie Gentry Performing "Ode to Billie Joe"

"What the Song Didn't tell you..."

On the fourth of June 1976, Warner Brothers studios released a movie that was inspired by the song, and the trailer promised that the movie would show you what the song didn't tell you. The release date was originally planned for the third of June, but since movies weren't typically released on Thursdays, the release date was changed to Friday the fourth.

The movie starred young Robbie Benson as Billie Joe McAllister and Glynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley. The narrator of the story was never named in the song, so the name Hartley was one invented by the screenplay writer for the movie.

In the movie version, Billy Joe throws himself off the bridge due to his guilt at having an intimate encounter with another man while drunk. The object that is thrown from the bridge is the narrator's ragdoll, perhaps symbolizing a loss of innocence and moving toward adulthood.

Gentry herself was involved with the making of the movie, though she explained to the writer that she really had no idea why the character in her song had committed suicide. This meant that the writer of the movie screenplay was free to invent his own story. Though it did well enough at the box office, grossing $27 million, the movie was criticized for introducing new themes that were not even hinted at in the song.

Does the Tallahatchie River Finally Give up its Secrets?

The Mystery Remains

The lady who wrote the song has always refused to reveal what was thrown from the bridge. For Gentry, the more compelling story was the nonchalance displayed by the family, as they sit at dinner and talk about Billie Joe’s suicide. Gentry has always preferred to leave it up to the listener to decide what was thrown from the bridge, and what the backstory between the two characters may have been. For her, the real story was the cruel was in which the people at the table dissociated themselves from the young man’s death.

The original Tallahatchie Bridge collapsed in June 1972 after being set on fire by vandals and was later rebuilt. So many people were drawn to the bridge after the song was released that the county enacted a $100 fine for anyone jumping from the bridge. Since the bridge was only about 20 feet above the river, it is unlikely that anyone could really have killed themselves jumping from that height.

© 2018 Kaili Bisson

Comments

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 03, 2019:

Hi Patty,

I recall reading about that possibility too. I did like the movie's use of a ragdoll being thrown from the bridge, symbolizing the loss of innocence and end of childhood. It's wonderful that even after all these years, we still love to speculate about what happened.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 03, 2019:

As a child, I heard Bobbie Gentry sing the long version of the song on the Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. Afterwards, our local city news stations and TV dance shows speculated that the suicide stemmed from an illegitimate child and the object thrown into the river was a newborn, possibly stillborn, child. That caused parents to berate teens more than they were already, not to have sex!

Popular music really weaves an interesting culture.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 03, 2019:

Hi John,

Very possible. We can only speculate; the lady who wrote the song isn't talking.

John Trippe on August 23, 2018:

A masterwork.by Bobbie Gentry.. It is possible that "Billie Joe" is a young woman. "Billie" like "Bobbie" is the feminine spelling of a name.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 09, 2018:

Thanks RedElf. Yes, so interesting to speculate, and the choice of spelling may have been somewhat intentional. I'm glad they were limited to a string arrangement for the song; I think a heavy rhythm section would not have made it as evocative as it is.

RedElf from Canada on April 09, 2018:

So, I guess we'll never really know. I must admit, the arrangement is haunting, as is the reason Billy Joe jumped. The movie gave it one POV, but if, in the original lyrics, Billy Joe was Billy Jo, that would certainly hint at the female version of that perspective. Both the movie's reason and the spelling of Billy Jo seem to point at "the love that dares not speak its name" (as it was called then) which was certainly a strong theme in that era. Any number of Southern playwrights including Tennessee Williams have dwelt on it both directly and indirectly.

Interesting to speculate :)

Awesome Hub.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 09, 2018:

Hello Paula, Thank you for reading and commenting. It really is a great song, and I'm glad it brought back fond memories for you.

Suzie from Carson City on April 09, 2018:

Great song, wonderful memories. I recall hearing the same story about Billie Joe & Sally throwing their stillborn baby from the bridge. It seemed to make sense to me then, that Billie Joe jumped due to guilt he couldn't handle. That song definitely had people wondering and guessing and it was very popular.

Thanks for this article which brings it all back to us. Paula

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 09, 2018:

Hello Flourish. Lots of folks seem to believe it was a stillborn baby that was thrown from the bridge. I never thought about that as a young person, but now of course I can see why people would think that way. The missing verses are so interesting too, and add the possibility of something having transpired between he and Sally Jane that made him jump.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 08, 2018:

This truly captivated my attention. I always assumed it was a dead baby but never could connect the pieces about why he’d jump. The callous way that the family discusses the tragedy reflects the stigma of suicide and suicide loss.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 06, 2018:

Thank you so much John, I always loved this song too, and invented a few different storylines of my own. None of them involved anything like what was in the movie though.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 06, 2018:

So glad it brought back fond memories for you Larry!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 06, 2018:

This was great Kaili. I used to love this song growing up and had an album with it on. Of course, I also wondered what was thrown off the bridge. I surmised it may have been a still-born baby. But, who knows as Bobby refused to reveal it. Great job with this article.

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 06, 2018:

Kaili, it has been years since I heard that song. When it came out, I was a year out of high school. I played it over and over. It was one of my favorites when I was a young boy. You brought back memories to me. Thank you, Kaili!!