By Mark Kemp
In August of 1967, a swampy, scratchy acoustic-guitar riff hit the radio airwaves in the United States and stayed there for the rest of the summer. “Ode to Billie Joe,” Mississippi native Bobbie Gentry‘s tragic tale of the ill-fated Billie Joe McAllister, who tumbled from the Tallahatchie Bridge, reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart and remained there for four weeks. The mystery at the heart of the song — why did Billie Joe jump? — has kept music fans guessing for nearly half a century.
In the late 1960s, tragic, country-tinged story-songs were all the rage on the American pop charts. A year after “Ode to Billie Joe,” Jeanie C. Riley would take the salacious “Harper Valley PTA” to No. 1, followed the next year by Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” which reached No. 2.
But”Ode to Billie Joe” was different from most story-songs that reached the Top 10. For one thing, Gentry wrote the song herself. (Neither Cash nor Riley wrote their famous hit story-songs.) For another, Gentry’s story wasn’t comedy, like Cash’s, and it wasn’t campy, like Riley’s. “Ode to Billie Joe” is pure Southern Gothic literature, a rarity on pop radio then — or now.
So take a guess: How come Billie Joe jumped?