Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Billy Joe Jumped



A mystery that has always plagued me can be found in the lyrics of a 1967 song by Bobbie Gentry called "Ode to Billy Joe." The song is narrated by an anonymous girl who knows Billy Joe McAllister, and in fact was seen with him right before he "jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Billy Joe's suicide has always bothered me; the song neither reveals why he jumps, nor what mysterious reason he and the girl had for "throwin' somethin'" off the bridge before his death.

Many people were intrigued by Gentry's song. Herman Raucher adapted it into a novel, in which he suggested a reason for the title figure's suicide--this was later made into a film starring Robby Benson. The book and film changed the spelling of the main character's name from "Billy" to "Billie" for reasons unknown.

The book and film, though, offer only one possibility for Billy Joe's death, and Bobbie Gentry, who wrote the song, claimed that she did not know why Billy Joe died. Therefore, the song remains an unsolved mystery, as do these compelling characters that Gentry created. More intriguing than Billy Joe is the girl who tells the story--the girl who obviously has all sorts of secrets, and spends her time throwing flowers "into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

For those who remember this song, I wonder how you interpreted it back in the days when it was played on the radio? And if you've never heard it before, what would your theory for Billie Joe's suicide be, based on the enigmatic lyrics of the song?

16 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I always figured it was a self-aborted fetus or something along those lines. I'm not sure why.

Julia Buckley said...

I had similar thoughts--the idea of the boy and girl conspiring to throw something off seems to suggest the notion of sexual guilt.

But then I suppose it could be evidence of anything that they had done which they later felt guilty about. The fetus, though, would support the boy's suicide.

jwhit said...

Count me in on the fetus. No idea why. It could have been anything. Drugs, a gun, a Monkeys album. But the sexual feel of the song was probably what did it.

She's dropping flowers because it's where he died.

Here's a link to the lyrics if anyone needs it:

http://www.geocities.com/bjaes.geo/lyrics/billyjoe.htm

Julia Buckley said...

Yes--and yet the value of the mystery is the fact that we don't know, and can never know, since this is a fictional product of Gentry's imagination.

But it does fuel my imagination, and I keep asking myself what ELSE it could be. I guess that's probably a typical creative writing response.

Cindy Fey said...

Chills. The chanting repetition of the melody, the minor key, the moody imagery...for me, the song is all about atmosphere. Secrecy, longing, regret. Can't you just hear the ominous buzzing of locusts and feel the ominous heat? I don't want to "know" the answers - I just want to feel it.

Julia Buckley said...

Good point, oh Cindy. This really is a moody one, and that's probably why it's still bugging me in 2009. Mood is everything--or at least Poe would say so.

Marshal Zeringue said...

Billy Joe was pushed. By the girl. Just to watch him die.

And she throws the flowers off to taunt the dead, remind herself she got away with it.

OK, OK. That dark interpretation just occurred to me. (Actually, I've always figured more or less as Patti & Julia.)

But think about it....

Julia Buckley said...

Now you are truly thinking like a mystery writer, Marshall! I had thought of that once before, too--the notion that he didn't necessarily jump just because that was what people assumed.

From some perspectives the girl seems almost sinister in what she isn't saying.

Julia Buckley said...

Oops--sorry, Marshal. I gave you an extra L.

Anonymous said...

He jumped from shame. He had gay sex with drunken idiots at the fair. Didn't anybody watch the movie?

Julia Buckley said...

Ah, but the movie was only one man's interpretation of the song. The song itself remains a mystery.

Anonymous said...

i don't want to believe that a fetus was thrown over the bridge...

Anonymous said...

It was a fetus from the miscarriage the girl he was in love with. Two reasons why he jump off the bridge, he wanted to marry her but her parents didn't approve and he had a sexual encounter with a man the left him so.confused by both situation.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe it to be an aborted fetus. I don't see why he would feel the need to do that if it were. I've always thought it was a live fetus (to hide from the parents). While a horrible thought, it makes more sense being something one couldn't live with.

Anonymous said...

He jumped off of the bridge because he found out OBUMMER was going to be President..

Anonymous said...

I think what was thrown off of the bridge, were those missing election voted from Dade County, Fla,.,.