To celebrate the upcoming release of our 102nd 33 1/3 on Ode to Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, we bring you the fourth installment of Bobbie Gentry week.
Why did Billie Joe jump? And what did Billie Joe and the narrator threw off the bridge before he did?
Reporters and fans asked Bobbie Gentry these questions for years. Almost five decades after the song was released, people are still asking those questions, along with “Where is Bobbie Gentry?”
The most common guesses about what was thrown off the bridge are a baby, a fetus or a ring. The vice president at Capitol Records initially didn’t want to release “Ode to Billie Joe” because he believed it was about abortion. Rosanne Cash, whose recent album The River & The Thread was in part inspired by Ode to Billie Joe, thinks it was a baby. Former President Bill Clinton got downright philosophical—and the closest to what Bobbie Gentry used to say—when he told Cash he believed the song is “the quintessential expression of the shame of the south.”
As for Gentry, she always said it didn’t matter.
“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide,” Gentry said.
In other words, “Ode to Billie Joe” is about the way we connect to our families … and the way we don’t. Bobbie Gentry was interested in the peculiar way Southerners processed tragedy, and how the social conventions that supposedly held families together—like supper–also drives individuals apart.
“They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
Fans ignored Gentry’s explanation. They didn’t accept the motivation provided in the 1976 film adaptation of the song either, which suggested that Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge after a gay sexual encounter.
Listeners connect to “Ode to Billie Joe” on a personal level, not a logical one. For many fans, “Ode to Billie Joe” means something larger. Some connections, of course, are more personal than others.
David Parish, a firefighter who lives in Michigan, believes his connection to “Ode to Billie Joe” just might be the blood coursing through his veins.
In 1976, David Parish and his father, Hal, were on a road trip driving through Mississippi when “Ode to Billie Joe” played on the radio.
“[I remember] going over a muddy river,” Parish told me. “And my dad said, I had a cousin named Billy.”
Hal was born in Strayhorn, Mississippi, about 50 miles south of Memphis, in 1937. When he was about three years old, his family purchased a New Deal 80-acre homestead in the Delta—in Philipp, Mississippi, to be exact. He grew up in Philipp on Money Road, in what’s known as the 40 Mile Bend of the Tallahatchie River.
Hal told his son that sometime in the early ’50s, his cousin Billy jumped off a bridge into the Tallahatchie River, struck a submerged log at a bad angle, and broke his neck. He was paralyzed and died a few months later. He was just a teenager.
In 1951, Bobbie Gentry would’ve been a 9-year-old girl living in Greenwood, about 60 miles away. Had she heard about the tragic death of a boy named Billy?
The story stuck with David Parish, rattled around in the back of his mind for many years.
Every once in a while, while fixing up his house, hanging at the fire station, or hearing “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, the story of his father’s cousin Billy popped into David Parish’s mind.
In 2006, father and son embarked on a road trip to Mississippi to attend Aunt Polly’s funeral in Senatobia. On Hwy 322, they crossed a bridge across the Tallahatchie just west of Crowder, Mississippi, where his father said his Uncle Davey and cousin Billy lived.
Parish developed a theory: Perhaps Bobbie Gentry heard about Billy’s accident, and 16 years later, the long-buried memory of Billy’s death served as spark for her song. Bobbie Gentry did say that one evening she wrote the phrase ‘Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, then finished the rest of the song by sunrise. Then again, she also said that she initially wrote the tale as a short story, and later translated it to verse.
After crossing the Mississippi River on that second road trip, David Parish decided to dig deeper. He vowed that one day he would return South and figure it out. He got busy with life, though, with work and children, and didn’t get back to Mississippi the next year, or the year after that.
Then, this past winter, Parish bought Rosanne Cash’s new album The River & the Thread and listened to the song Money Road.
I was dreaming about the Tallahatchie Bridge
A thousand miles from where we lived
Parish felt a rush of connection to the song; his father grew up on Money Road. He started reading stories about Rosanne Cash and The River & The Thread, her latest album, the one inspired by the South.
Cash is a longtime outspoken fan of Bobbie Gentry and has been performing “Ode to Billie Joe” live for years. The album cover for The River & The Thread is a photograph of Cash standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge, looking out over the water.
Listening to Money Road, Parish’s mind drifted back to his father’s cousin Billy. But it was more than that; Parish marveled about the way music and time can thread disparate places and people together.
A lonesome boy in a foreign land
A voice we’ll never understand
The more Parish read about Rosanne Cash’s story of making this record, the more he connected to not just Money Road, but to Cash’s quest to reckon with her Southern roots. She was born in Memphis, grew up in California and has lived in New York City for many years.
Growing up, Cash resisted the influence of her father Johnny. But she’s come around in the last few years. For The River & The Thread, Cash and longtime musical collaborator (and husband) John Leventhal set out to explore the Deep South, mining the area’s music while driving the backroads. Cash has said that she approached the South as a “self-aware insider-outsider.”
Parish felt like an insider-outsider to the South, too. Born near Youngtown, Ohio, he grew up in Michigan, and had never felt a strong urge to tug on his Southern roots. But recently, after suffering the loss of several beloved family members, he yearned to excavate his family’s history. He felt in tune with Cash’s idea of time traveling into the past to better understand the present, and himself.
I was dreaming about the deepest blue
But what you seek is seeking you
Parish started by pasting notes, musical lyrics and photographs into a long online document. The booklet, which he shared with me even though it is a rough draft, is part family photo album, road trip scrapbook, and philosophical text on connection.
“It’s kind of that combination of time traveling and road trips,” he told me recently over the phone. “People were dying a lot this year, so it was a lot of looking back… you start digging into it, and start to see the connections to your predecessors.” Eventually, this fall, he wrote Rosanne Cash a letter.
From Parish’s letter to Cash:
“Like yourself, I’m only one generation removed from the life of the Southern sharecropper [unlike] my wife (and your 5th generation New Yorker husband) whose blue-blood family’s been in Honolulu since 1840 (I’ve joked with her that her Aunt Marie Lou was playing piano in Paris in ’27 while my Grandfather was staring at a mules’ ass all day!).
“I’m reconnecting,” Parish told me. “Like Rosanne Cash, I wasn’t interested in this whole past thing. I think I mentioned my mother’s … [tragic death] shortly after I was born. I never looked at that microfilm. I never felt the need to until now.”
Several months ago, Parish finally took that third trip South. When he got to Starkville, Mississippi, he went to the Mississippi State University library microfiche archives to search for newspaper articles about Billy’s death.
Parish found Billy’s brief obituary. William “Billy” Dave Parish, Jr. died on October 26, 1951. The newspaper article said Billy fell from a diving board.
“So, he died in a pool?,” I asked.
“Pardon your profession, but [writers] don’t get it quite right,” said Parish. “Maybe it’s a diving board off a bridge.”
Recently, Parish mailed letters to Billy’s surviving sister, nieces and nephews.
“Most of them weren’t even born when he died,” Parish said. “But someone told them some sort of story, I figure, about their uncle.”
Just this week, Parish told me that he connected with Doris, Billy’s only surviving sister. Doris is 87 years old and teaches piano. According to Parish, Doris told him that she left home for Memphis back in 1945, and was living there when Billy had his accident. Doris told Parish that she visited her brother every day at the Baptist Hospital in Memphis. Billy returned home to Crowder after spending about a month in the hospital. Just a couple of weeks later, he was rushed to the Marks Hospital, where he died.
Parish is right: Billy’s accident was in a river, not a swimming pool.
Doris told him that Billy and some of his friends were in a pickup truck driving to Greenwood, about 60 miles south of Crowder. Somewhere along the way, they stopped to go swimming in a river. Billy was the first to dive in. After he hit the submerged log, his friends pulled him out of the river, laid him in the back of the truck, and drove him home.
Doris isn’t sure if Billy jumped from a bridge or not.
“It [could’ve been] the Tallahatchie, if the boys took the pickup truck west from Crowder on Hwy 322 to Lambert and then south on their way to Greenwood,” Parish wrote me recently. “If they went east, and then south to Greenwood on Hwy 35, it could have been the Little Tallahatchie River Canal or the Yocana River Canal.”
Parish plans to head back to South to solve the mystery.
“[Or] maybe,” Parish mused. “I can ask Bobbie Gentry.”
– Tara Murtha
Two book release parties for Ode to Billie Joe are going down Friday, December 5. Get tickets for the evening show at Underground Arts here, RSVP for the WXPN Free at Noon here, or listen online Friday at noon here.