Ode to Billie Joe


I had a crush on my next door neighbor as a teenager – a crush on the father.

He was at least a dozen years younger than my parents with two toddlers he was raising on his own after his young wife died in a car accident. He was so tragic….and cute.

It was the early 1970’s and he had a thick head of dark hair parted smoothly on the side, a kind and distinct laugh, bell bottoms, and a smile that didn’t quit. As a civil engineer, he embodied a more dreamy Mike Brady or Don Draper – it was that era after all.

Then he remarried a fun, adorable girl, with long dark hair parted in the middle, a brightly-colored convertible Volkswagon bug, and short shorts. Their relationship was fresh and fun and gave me hope in finding Mr. Right myself.

I became their babysitter.

It was at their house while sitting one Saturday evening that I discovered an album of Bobbie Gentry’s – who kind of looked like the new Mrs. I played that vinyl on their tinny record player in their finished basement over and over – about 100 times, the first time I heard Ode to Billie Joe.

And Mama hollered out the back door,

“Ya’ll remember to wipe your feet.”

And then she said

“I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge.

Today Billie Joe MacAllister

jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Bobbie Gentry was a 70’s country singer, looking a bit like Priscilla Presley in those days. Her voice was deep and husky, sultry. The story of Billie Joe captured my imagination.

Mama said to me

“Child what’s happened to your appetite?

I’ve been cooking all mornin’

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 throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

I so wanted to know the story. What was the mystery?

Why did Billie Joe kill himself?

What was his connection to the story teller? Had she known already he was dead?

The imagery and scene the song evokes is vivid, so palpable and believable. I am right there in the sleepy, dusty Mississippi Delta.

A movie was made years later. It was bad – didn’t come close to giving closure to my imagined storyline.

Then many years later, I found the song on iTunes. As I run now, 40 years later, I still smile and ponder….what was the mystery?

What happened up there on that bridge?

How I love deep, flawed characters and a good story!

And me I spend a lot of time

picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water

off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Ode to Billie Joe was written and sung

by Bobbie Gentry, Capitol Records, June 1967.

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