So . . . what is this song about? Why did Billie Joe MacAllister jump off the bridge? And what were he and this girl throwing off the bridge beforehand? What was Billie Joe's secret? What personal devil drove him to suicide? Is there a clue in the song I am missing?
In a few email threads and actual conversations, I put forth my theory that he must have been a repressed homosexual who was exposed by someone and couldn't live around Choctaw Ridge in the early sixties if people knew. Most of my friends dismissed my theory . . . actually, all my friends dismissed my theory.
Then I got the following email from my friend Mark:
According to the film version of Ode to Billy Joe, made sometime in the 70's I think but am not sure, and starring (who can forget?) Robbie Benson, and supposedly approved by the big B.G. herself, Billy Joe was a closet case who had nasty sex with his factory foreman and threw himself off the bridge over that. What they were seen throwing off the bridge was a baby doll (rag I believe), I forget why, but I think the girl had an abortion somewhere in there. Feel free to share this with the blog world so someone with less of a life than me can correct all the errors of memory hiding in this missive.
I didn't even know there was a movie about the song! So, I visited imdb.com and learned:
At last, we're given the answers to the questions raised by the haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. Eighteen- year-old Billy Joe McAllister is in love with Bobbie Lee, but her father refuses to allow her to receive gentlemen callers before she's sixteen. In the Mississippi Delta, in a time before the boondocks had seen television and indoor plumbing, a young man's fancy turns constantly to thoughts of love. Billy Joe is no different in this regard and his persistence is making it difficult for Bobbie Lee to maintain her virtue (the dog-eared issues of "Torrid Romance" don't help either). Perhaps an indictment of the artificial conventions of society, the film demonstrates the tragic consequences of a young couple's first awkward grapplings with love and sex. As Bobbie Lee says shortly after Billy Joe's lifeless body is dragged from the Chattahoochee River, "What do I know of love... I'm only a child." Yet, there seems little doubt that what she feels for the dead boy is love. Could he have loved her so well?
Billy Joe confesses his love to the lovely Bobbi Lee only to cover his growing fear that he may, in fact, be homosexual. One night, at a barn dance, he gets a little drunk and rather than going with the hired whores, gives into his desires and sexual relations with an unnamed man. The guilt causes him to run away, hide in the woods and eventually confess everything to Bobbi Lee who doesn't want to believe him only because she was enjoying the forbidden nature of their love. In the end, he cannot accept his sexuality nor can he hide behind Bobbi Lee and that's why he throws himself off the [Tallahatchie] bridge.
When I thanked Mark for his insight and told him of people's reaction to my theory, he wrote:
. . . your friends should realize that whenever a young kid jumps off a bridge in East Bumfuck, Tennessee, there's at least a 50% chance that homosexuality is involved.
I think he is quite correct, and the percentage is probably higher than 50%!
My friend Irma has promised an MP3 of the song, and let's hope it arrives before long!
imdb.com entry for the movie "Ode To Billie Joe"
Link to my original article of 28 FEB 06.
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(This post was updated on 27 DEC 06.)