What the hell did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchee Bridge?

Over thirty-five years after the release of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” questions linger about her haunting southern-gothic ballad. Decades from now, will anyone still wonder who let the dogs out? Gentry’s #1 single tells the story of a family dinner where the narrator finds out that her boyfriend, Billie Joe McCallister, has jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge; the day before, people spotted her and Billie Joe throwing an unidentified object off the same bridge. “Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge: flowers, a ring, even a baby,” Gentry has said. “What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important. The message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. The song is a study in unconscious cruelty.” Sinead O’Connor’s 1995 cover version didn’t shed much light on the song’s mysteries, but the 1976 movie adaptation, Ode to Billy Joe (with Robby Benson in the title role), provided some answers. They seem like arbitrary inventions of the filmmakers, but they’re the closest thing the song has to an official “solution”: In the movie, Billy Joe tosses his girlfriend Bobbie Lee’s rag doll off the bridge and jumps the following day, tormented by uncertainty over his sexual identity.

(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)