Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Chances are, if you’re of a certain age and from Mississippi, you know the rest of that line to one of the most iconic songs of the late 1960s, “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Bobbie Gentry was practically unknown in 1967 when she released her first single, “Mississippi Delta.” That single barely made a mark, but the B-side, a very simple song named “Ode to Billie Joe” took off like a bullet. Partly because of Gentry’s husky voice and partly because the song posed a lot of questions (Exactly who was Billy Joe? And why did he jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? What were he and Bobbie Lee throwing off the bridge?). The song became a massive hit — Bobbie Gentry even had her TV show for a short period.

In the ’70s, Max Baer, Jr. — yes, Jethro Bodine — directed the film version, which answered some of those questions, but raised even more controversy than the song originally did.

I remember hearing the song for the first time on a record player at my Granny’s house in Artesia, when I was about 5 or 6. The single was scratched in a couple of places, but I loved the song. Even then, to a small child’s ears, it had a ring of authenticity. Still does. Her lines of her chopping cotton while her brother was baling hay, her “momma hollered out the back door,” every word in the song sounded like the real thing.

I couldn’t wait to see the movie (which starred Glynnis O’Connor and Robby Benson as Bobbie Lee and Billie Joe). I remember enjoying it a great deal, even if, upon further review, it’s not that great a film and, oddly, changed the spelling of “Billie.” It was, however, shot on location in Mississippi — in the summer, no less, so that must have been fun. The movie gave the song a sort of revival that lasted a few months before it faded away again.

Still, the song — at least as far I’m concerned — occupies some room in the modern Southern folklore. We still aren’t totally sure why Billy Joe jumped off that bridge, but we’re still talking about it.

And the rest of the line is “… another sleepy, dusty Delta day.”

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