Ask The Fiddler #14: Fiddler: What Really Happened to Billy Joe McAllister?

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Filed under: Satire

fiddler-75Editor’s Note: Ask The Fiddler is a lifestyle advice column that aims to remedy more chaos and confusion than it creates. Questions may be submitted to us here at Art of the Prank, and good luck.


Dear Fiddler:

I’m wondering if Billy Joe McAllister could possibly have survived his leap off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

Fran in Frisco

Dear Fran:

So, what do you figure? He crawled ashore and headed off to start a new life, somewhere far away from Choctaw Ridge? I’m with you, for a couple of reasons. I’ll get to that, but I have to say we face formidable opposition.

Gentryguitar-200Based on a heap of chatter on the Internet, most people, probably rightly, take Bobbie Gentry’s ode as a lament for the dead. One site I was looking at, there was so much gab, I quit reading. But it seemed like the whole gang there believed Billy Joe was a goner.

By the way, in the original lyric Billy is Billie. You’ll find it spelled wrong in a lot of places that should know better.

Jumping, of course, is a popular way to get dead. Think of Paul Simon’s “Save the Life of My Child,” or the fate of the swagman in Waltzing Matilda. Think about it, what state — other than the really flat ones — doesn’t have a Lover’s Leap, even several, with some tragic tale attached?

Looking back to ancient times, I’m reminded of that noted vegetarian philosopher Empedocles who believed himself divine. He jumped into a volcano to prove it. He didn’t reappear in human or divine form, so much for philosophy.

But no one is suggesting that Billie Joe was a philosopher. In fact we are told that in the opinion of the family patriarch, he never had a lick of sense. I don’t know if that argues for or against my theory, that he swam ashore, hitched a ride to Savannah and became a street preacher.

Thing is, there is no record of what became of Billie Joe, no funeral reported, no tombstone, his action appears only as “news from Choctaw Ridge.” While Momma’s report is fairly fresh – “today” – it could well be gossip, something Betty told Irma told Freddy told Sam. Who knows how it might have got twisted around? And what if was actually news, right off the radio? Doesn’t make it true. We all know about “news,” there’s a good chance it’s ill-informed garble or lazy misinformation.

Hollywood tried to help solve the mysteries of the song. Haven’t seen the film so I don’t know the particulars, but the homosexual incident concocted by a scriptwriter just seems a tad unlikely in rural Mississippi in the early 1950s. According to the movie version, Billie Joe committed suicide because he had made love to another man and was overcome with guilt.

There’s also some misunderstanding because the young lady is out chopping cotton on the third of June. If you have a brain wired like a Jeopardy contestant, you probably know cotton isn’t harvested in Mississippi until the fall of the year. Unfortunately the “Gotcha!” fails because chopping cotton isn’t the same as chopping trees or bushes or ivy vines, it is simply weeding, which could well be a June activity.

There’s no shortage of truth in the song. The various locales mentioned are genuine, such as the Tallahatchie River Bridge, a possible reference to any one of several bridges. But the elements may not be where the song puts them. The original bridge Bobbie Gentry posed on for Life magazine fell to ruin and has been replaced – and, at the point where that photo was taken, the river has merged with another to become known as the Yazoo. But it’s easy to understand how a songwritermight choose Tallahatchie over Yazoo. If Billie Joe had jumped off the Yazoo bridge, the song would probably have lived up to its producers’ expectations as a B-side that no one would listen to.

Now, here’s a consideration that might just make a believer of you. How could someone die from a twenty-foot jump into a river known historically (we’re talking early 1950s, there’s no mention of flooding or pollution) as shallow and suited for swimming? It’s not exactly what the cops call a “jumper’s bridge,” say, a great tall span like Golden Gate, where “Every jumper has a 98 percent chance of success, a much higher percentage than for hanging, a drug overdose, or shooting.” Of course, we lack biographical information on Billie Joe. Maybe he couldn’t swim, would have drowned in a wading pool given a chance.

But supposing he did survive. That brings a weighty factor into play. Seems a number of suicide-jump survivors have undergone what an expert describes as a “spiritual transformation.” Billie Joe could really and truly have seen the light and trucked on over to Savannah to become a street preacher.

And here’s another thing that needs pondering. It’s actually possible that his survival was edited out. The original lyric was seven minutes long, eleven verses, edited down to four minutes, five verses. But no one seems to know what became of the original version. What was lost in those six missing verses?

There is mention of a longer version archived at the University of Mississippi. Looking at it, that appears to be early scribbles, a first draft that doesn’t anywhere near qualify as the whole story.

Seems like songwriter/singer Bobbie Gentry could tell us, but she’s not about to. She hasn’t appeared in public in years and rejects requests for interviews. The latest effort to locate her was BBC’s Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?, narrated by Roseanne Cash. The glitch in the hour-long program was the absence of the focal point, Bobbie Gentry. Maybe she’s hiding out somewhere with Billie Joe?

I should mention that if he indeed became a street preacher in Savannah, Billie Joe might show up in court records there. Turns out, street preaching has historically been a matter of great legal controversy in Savannah. Preachers have been arrested for making “unseemly noises.” But maybe the splash down whopped some sense into Billie Joe. Maybe he picked up a copy of The Street Preachers’ Manual and learned the tricks of the trade.

Well, let’s leave it at this: If you’re out there, good buddy, it’s time to ‘fess up. Been damn near fifty years since that song came out and sixty some since you jumped off that bridge. Long enough. Share the secrets of the “Ode.” Give it up, Billie Joe.

Video of Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe from BBC Live 1968

Yours truly,

The Fiddler


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