Singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" hit the charts in the summer of 1967 as I was car-hopping at our local A & W and grinding the gears between my freshman and sophomore years of high school.
Many of my ilk and era cut their teenage molars on this memorable tune and its ambiguous Southern Gothic lyrics. Basically, it tells of a young Mississippi girl who, along with the rest of her family, learns of Billie Joe's demise during a dinner-time respite from their plantation chores.
As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the girl (the song's narrator) and Billie Joe had a "thing" going on. Further, we learn that, according to the young pastor there on Choctaw Ridge, there is a better than fifty-fifty chance she had been seen previously at the same bridge with Billie as the two of them were "throwin' somethin' off" it.
Speculation about what that "somethin'" might have been ran rampant back in 1967. Some thought it was a ring, while others advanced the darker suspicion of an aborted baby. Of the numerous possibilities that have been suggested, I would like to propose those I, after careful consideration, consider to be the four most likely:
- Brussels sprouts. It was no secret that Billie Joe detested them. The girl, too, much preferred a meal of black-eyed peas, biscuits, and apple pie--although Bobbie Gentry documents that, on the particular June 3 in question, she purportedly didn't eat much.
- Clari-tabs. These were water-clarifying tablets that Billie Joe had concocted earlier that spring in his chemistry class. The Tallahatchie River was known to be extremely muddy, and the young couple was merely trying to clear up the water there. Billie had a penchant for catching frogs and putting them down people's backs at picture shows, and the mud made them so much harder to spot. Billie had great hopes for his invention, and a patent was pending when he met his untimely demise.
- Billie Joe's senior term paper, plus the research he had painstakingly hand-written on fifty unlined 3 x 5" index cards. Miss Gogglesnit had given Billie an F for the project because the cards were supposed to have been lined and 4 x 6". Further, she had criticized his illustrations for the paper, the topic of which was "The Fascinating Mating Habits of Fruit Flies." Billie thought he would get a whoopin' if his parents found out he had failed an assignment, so he and the girl decided to destroy the evidence.
- Zeke Delaney. Zeke was the Carroll County bully. Years ago, when they were both children, he had convinced Billie Joe that it was fun to pee on an electric fence. Earlier that week, he had stolen a kiss from the narrator that had lasted a full five minutes. Billie Joe thought that was the last straw, and it was his turn for revenge. The girl didn't think it was that bad, as kisses go.