While we won’t ever know for sure just what she and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bobbie Gentry’s lazy, throaty delivery of the story makes us feel the weight of its secrets and innuendo.
Why not click the big, shiny button on the left and give “Ode to Billie Joe” a listen now? After all, it is the 3rd of June.
“Ode to Billie Joe” tells such an elegant and economical story; it’s like quick, loose pencil strokes that give us precise renderings of a few minute details, but go soft and suggestive in their depiction of larger pieces of the picture. Gentry tells us so many little things about the hours from breakfast through dinner: who said what while passing which bowl around the table. She captures whole characters by quoting only the smallest pieces of their conversation. But she tells us almost nothing about what happened that day on the Tallahatchie Bridge, just enough for us to sense the pall it casts over the entire scene and the rest of our narrator’s life.
While most of us would never know the Tallahatchie Bridge without that song, for some its name brings to mind the story of a boy lynched nearby in 1955.
That summer, 15-year-old Emmett Till had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. The story goes that he whistled at a white woman on a dare. A few days later, when the woman’s husband returned home from a trip, she reported the offense to him. Three days after that, Emmett was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. His murderers had beaten him and gouged out one eye, then shot him through the head and thrown him in the river. When the authorities recovered his body, the fan from a cotton gin was tied around his neck.
There was overwhelming evidence to support a conviction of the three men charged with the murder: witnesses who testified that the men had bragged about their crime afterward; testimony from Emmett’s great uncle who was present when the men abducted the boy; and another eye witness who saw Emmett in the back of a truck with the accused.
All three were acquitted.
The jury deliberations took 67 minutes. As one juror explained, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us that long.”
The genius of Bobbie Gentry’s song is that it doesn’t really matter what happened that day on the bridge. What matters is the mood she creates with her careful balance of first-person narration and direct quotes from the conversation. And somehow that mood — slow and heavy — manages to convey the weight, the quiet oppression of the summer heat and rural southern morality.
This song made for an auspicious debut. The album even knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the #1 spot on the U.S. charts. But Bobbie Gentry’s debut didn’t follow through to the kind of stellar career her talent deserved.
She followed this 1967 album with another impressive single in 1970. But that song, “Fancy,” didn’t gain the same broad appeal, reaching only #31 on the U.S. pop charts and #26 on the country charts.
And don’t bother going looking for the bridge; it was demolished in 1987.