IT WAS THE THIRD OF JUNE, ANOTHER SLEEPY, DUSTY DELTA DAY…

 

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay…

 

Today is June third, and when an online friend posted those lyrics on Facebook, the enigmatic ballad came back to me as if Bobbie Gentry were singing through my phone. It’s been more than 50 years since she produced the haunting song that had a whole generation wondering: What did Billy Joe Macallister really throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Half a century later, I figured it was time to find out. With the help of the internet, many of the mysteries of my youth have been solved. I was sure the answer would be there.

But it wasn’t. Though speculation ran from flowers to a baby, no one had ever got Gentry to commit. In 1976, a film was made based on the song, it’s interpretation including a homosexual theme. Herman Raucher, the screenplay’s writer, asked  Bobbie Gentry about the song:

“I said, ‘You don’t know why he jumped off the bridge?’

She said, ‘I have no idea.’”

The web wasn’t a total loss, however. As I surfed on, I discovered something even more intriguing: The meaning of the song itself.

Recently a handwritten page of Gentry’s original lyrics had been found. It began with a verse she never recorded and with the first line crossed out.

Sally Jane Ellison’s been missing since the first week in June.

People don’t see Sally Jane in town any more.

There’s a lot o’ speculatin’, she’s not actin’ like she did before.

Some say she knows more than she’s willin’ to tell.

But she stays quiet and a few think it’s just as well.

No one really knows what went on up on Choctaw Ridge

the day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

—University of Mississippi’s Archives and Special Collections

In the published lyrics, Sally Jane became the unnamed female narrator who was only present with Billy Joe throwing something off the bridge. What it means has more to do with the nature of the ballad than the story.

The story itself has so many dramatic elements— Billy Joe’s apparent suicide and the bridge-tossing mystery— that its true meaning was lost on the youth of the mid-sixties, as it has been lost ever since.

Blogger Jon Pennington writes:

“The song is nominally about Billie Joe McAllister’s suicide, but no informative details of the suicide ever emerge.  Instead, we only learn about the suicide indirectly from a narrator who hears bits and pieces emerge in between mundane dinner table —conversation between Mama and Papa.  But the whole point is that Mama and Papa’s dinner table conservation will never help you solve the mystery, because Mama and Papa not only don’t know enough about Billy Joe McAllister to answer that question, they simply don’t care.” — Jon Pennington

So here is the real deal:

It doesn’t matter what they threw off the bridge. More ominous than Billy Joe’s suicide, more menacing than the couple throwing something off the bridge, more heartbreaking than the lonely narrator picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge is the blatant apathy of the family to the tragedies going on around them. The true theme of the song is indifference.

“The song is a first-person narrative that reveals a Southern Gothic tale in its verses by including the dialog of the narrator’s family at dinnertime on the day that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” Throughout the song, the suicide and other tragedies are contrasted against the banality of everyday routine and polite conversation.” —Wikipedia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe

 

Published Lyrics:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay

And at dinner time we stopped and we walked back to the house to eat

And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet”

And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge

Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

 

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas

“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please”

“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”

Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow

Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge

And now Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

 

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe

Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show

And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?

“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it just don’t seem right”

“I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge”

“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

 

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”

“I’ve been cookin’ all morning 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 throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

 

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe

Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo

There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last Spring

And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

 

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

In this photograph from the November 10, 1967 issue of Life magazine, Bobbie Gentry strolls across the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi. The bridge collapsed in June 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Mollie Hunt

I am the crazy cat lady, animal shelter volunteer, Trekkie, and mystery writer. I live in the rainy Pacific Northwest and will watch any TV show or movie filmed here. Even though I am of a goodly age (sixty-something) I go to Star Trek conventions in costume and am not afraid to be by myself. I enjoy my life in the cat lane. Words to live by: Spay and neuter; Live long and prosper; Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
This entry was posted in Death & Dying, Getting Older, Health, Wellness, Lifestyle, Life Through Amber, mental illness and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to IT WAS THE THIRD OF JUNE, ANOTHER SLEEPY, DUSTY DELTA DAY…

  1. Bernadette says:

    Yes, it’s one I pull up to listen to probably frequently. It’s like Southern Gothic novels, what happens is always hidden, always painful, sometimes horrible, never fully explained presuming you, the reader, will guess the details because you’re from there too (thinking Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”), while life seems to flow along without stopping.

  2. Bernadette says:

    Not to mention presumed child labor and a really hard life in work and poverty.

  3. Brian Frum says:

    The Dad enjoyed that, he often wondered about the bridge toss too!

  4. retrodee says:

    Oh thank you for posting this! Every single June 3rd, I think of this song and I always wonder, am I the only one who does? And what did that song actually mean?! I heard it when I was a little kid many years after it first came out… and I haven’t heard it since. But it always stayed in my mind, whenever I hear someone mention June 3rd!

  5. Catwoods says:

    That’s really interesting about the hand-written lyrics being found. I’ve read that the original was much longer but not that there might be a copy or copies still around. I’ve always thought it was artfully worded with precision detail. I remember when it came out and was number 1 for four weeks in 1967. A few years back on June 3rd several facebook friends posted either links to the song or a reference to the characters or the bridge, and since then I’ve doing the same every June 3rd.

    • Mollie Hunt says:

      I wonder if Gentry ever had any idea her song would touch so many for so long?

      • Catwoods says:

        That’s a good question, with so much stellar music coming out that year. There was lots of lasting music from that time period. To me Ode to Billie Joe captures the sound of real conversation, and the urgency of rural life; add tragedy and mystery, and it resonates across time.

      • Mollie Hunt says:

        I wonder how that story would translate into current times? Apathy still abounds, and now I think there is also a sense of confusion that was absent back then.

  6. catladymac says:

    One of my friends had a theroy that she threw his teddy bear off the bridge.

  7. Yvon says:

    I really love Bobby Gentry and this is one of my favorite songs.
    Thanks for your final comment, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

  8. Timmy Tomcat says:

    This was a song we discussed around the dinner table when it first came out and we went from a letter to an aborted baby being thrown off the bridge. Thanks for the great background and information that will add to the enjoyment of this classic!

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