It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
With those words, Bobbie Gentry began a debate in 1967 that still has not been answered to this day! What was thrown off of The Tallahatchie Bridge and why did Billie Joe MacAllister jump? Now we all know it is fiction, and made a great tune that is still considered one of the great Pop and Country songs of all time, but those questions still linger for music fans everywhere, myself included. Was the song about abortion, a subject that at that time was as controversial as ever, was it about inter-racial romance that led to the suicide of the young man? That is the theme that seems to stand out to me, for some of the lyrics do hint at that..
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.…since the song takes place in the deep south and has no real time frame to it, the majority of black’s back then would have been on plantations picking cotton,
Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?..the use of the word child was a Negro saying more than whites, but could be also used by the real poor whites of the time, so that one is iffy. But perhaps the biggest theme running through the song is the indifference that the family has to Billy Joe
Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense,
pass the biscuits, please.”I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right….These lines lead one to think that perhaps Billy Joe was slightly mentally challenged and that his life was not of much importance, but it also comes back to the abortion angle, as perhaps rape was involved and Billy Joe forced himself on the narrator, but to protect Billy Joe she kept it hidden and wound up getting the abortion and when Billy Joe found out he jumped to his death. But it comes back to the question at the center of everything, What was thrown off the bridge? A fetus? I don’t think we will ever know as even Bobby Gentry has kept the secret of the meaning of her song. But it has kept musicologists thinking and kept the song in many memory’s, and that is a good thing.
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.