I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay.
Then (Mama) said, "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
— Bobby Gentry, Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
If you are of a certain age, you probably remember most of the words to that song.
And, of course, you remember the big mystery: the narrator and Billie Joe had been seen “throwin’ somethin’” off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Now, more than 50 years later, you can search all over the Internet and still not get a satisfactory answer to the question of what they had thrown.
So I decided to look into it when I was in Mississippi for my adventure travels a few years ago and detoured over to the Tallahatchie Bridge.
First let me say thank goodness for GPS. Leflore County, Mississippi is not really on the way to anywhere. But I managed to find it late on a Tuesday afternoon and started my research.
When I say “find it” I am talking about the location of the bridge Ms. Gentry was referring to in her mysterious song. The actual bridge itself collapsed five years after the songwriter was pictured on an album cover walking across it (note to younger readers: record albums looked like huge black CDs; they had music on both sides and required a thing called a “stereo” or a “record player” to activate them).
The bridge of “Ode To Bille Joe” fame was torn down in 1972 and replaced, 1000 feet upstream, by a much higher and less romantic concrete structure. Still, I walked a quarter mile or so out to the middle of it. I figured it would be well worth the climb if I could be the one to determine what those long-ago teens had tossed off that bridge.
The Tallahatchie River was flowing briskly the day I was there and its waters were, in fact, as muddy as Ms. Gentry had described. Huge semis loaded with that year’s cotton harvest made the entire structure shake as they rumbled past me.
I looked 1000 feet downstream and could see where the old road reached a dead end at the waters’ edge. That would have been one end of the original Tallahatchie Bridge, I reasoned.
But I could see no evidence of the lovers’ trip to the bridge...perhaps a hub cap from Billie Joe’s Plymouth Valiant…an old Lavoris mouthwash bottle … a pack of Luckies … a spent bottle of English Leather or Canoe…something that I could date to the third of June, 1967. Nothing.
I got discouraged almost immediately.
I had originally planned on checking the phone book to see if there were any McAllisters still living in the area. They would probably know the kind of thing Billie Joe might throw off a bridge.
I also wanted to see what happened to the narrator’s would-be suitor, Brother Taylor. Did he stay with the clergy (I am guessing he was Baptist) or perhaps go on to open a chain of Waffle Houses?
One of my best leads was that the narrator’s brother had married Becky Thompson and opened “a store in Tupelo,” but checking that out would have meant backtracking 75 miles or so. Besides, nobody knows the brother’s last name. And he would be in his mid-70s now; probably long-retired.
That’s when I gave up my research on the “Ode To Billie Joe” mystery.
But not before I did one more thing in hopes of creating my own mystery that could go viral on the internet.
I know several people passed by as I did it. Hopefully, that made them very curious about what I was doing there.
And even more hopefully, perhaps one of them was a songwriter.
If so, the only remaining question is whether that songwriter knows how to make a rhyme for “some old guy taking a selfie”?
Jim Busek is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. He can be reached via e-mail at jimbusek@ hotmail.com.