An enduring musical mystery

September 5, 2013 

Sleepy or dusty or not, when the third of June comes along I think of Billie Joe McAllister.

Chuck Reece also remembers that day up on Choctaw Ridge when news spread that Billie Joe had jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Reece, a former political speechwriter, presents his rancorous views on Bittersoutherner.com, an online magazine that promises "to explore, from every angle we can, the duality of the Southern thing."

On Thursday, he gave a homework assignment that stirred some memories, posting the cover of a 1967 album by Bobbie Gentry that featured "The Ode to Billie Joe," a haunting Southern Gothic song whose lyrics remain a mystery.

"Discuss," the Bitter Southerner said.

Discuss people did, breathing life into a question that after 46 years is still unanswered. What did Billie Joe throw off that bridge the day before he leaped?

Reece struck a nerve. Within hours people were discussing the bluesy melody, the sultry singer and even the size of the guitar she clutched on the album cover.

You wonder if people in the boroughs of New York give a bagel about Papa, who passes the peas and shows no respect for the dead by saying Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Then, in the same sentence, he asks someone to pass the biscuits.

Gentry's song spent four weeks atop the Billboard charts, won her a Grammy and a spot on Rolling Stone's all-time 500 songs list. It could have been a novel for in 358 words it painted a picture of death and everyday life.

Wait a minute. Didn't Mama see her talking to Billie Joe after church on Sunday night?

But the kicker was that nice young preacher Brother Taylor saying he had seen a girl that looked a lot like the narrator with Billie Joe throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And he would be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, "oh by the way."

Reece says his magazine "will be here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time." He talks about a new generation of Southerners, but Thursday he harkened back to lyrics that captured a moment, living up to his magazine's promise to give us "a peek at the oddities that seem to happen only down here."

Gentry's disappearance is a mystery itself, but the singer with the unusually large hair once said her song, by dealing with suicide in a nonchalant way, became "a study in unconscious cruelty."

That comment is as muddy as the river. An online source, Southernerds.com, explains our fascination with Billie Joe McAllister best: "The truth of the matter will always be, here in the South, we sure do like a good story."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter @hyattrichard.

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