Monday, June 04, 2007

News from Choctaw Ridge

...or des nouvelles de Bourg-les-Essonnes

Another thing my brother and I tried to remember last weekend were the words to the song with the brain-wormy line "Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge".

By coincidence, the song came up in a Metafilter post this week along with a link to Billie Gentry's original version. I love the Billie Gentry version with it's unsettling whiney quality and strange narrative (much more than the Sheryl Crowe ersatz version) but I think I actually prefer Joe Dassin's French version. (I've googled everywhere but I'm afraid I just can't find a link to give you an idea of what it sounds like). In a clever transposition, the young man Billie-Joe becomes a young French woman, Marie-Jeanne
Guillaume, who throws herself off the "Pont de la Garonne" but like the original it never actually quite descends into the maudlin. One of the things I like is the way all of the cultural references are translated to a French context too:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
C'était le quatre juin, le soleil tapait depuis le matin
Je m'occupais de la vigne et mon frère chargeait le foin

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
Et mon père dit à ma mère en nous passant le plat de gratin :
"La Marie-Jeanne, elle n'était pas très maligne, passe-moi donc le pain".

"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right"
Donne-moi encore un peu de vin, c'est bien injuste la vie

However, in both versions the enigma remains — just what was it exactly that Billie-Joe (or Marie-Jeanne) and the singer were throwing off the bridge last Sunday? Answers in the comments please.


beefking said...

I always just assumed it was a baby. Firstly, the lyric depicts the sort of southern society that doesn't look kindly on out-of-wedlock babies. And the grief of killing a baby would explain both Billy Joe's suicide and the narrator's attitude in telling the song. She turns sullen when she hears the news, her appetite vanishes, and the way she relates the conversation going on around her is sort of veiled by a diaphanous emotional haze.

Also it's clear from the lyric that the narrator and Billy Joe threw whatever it was off the bridge together, presumably because it was something for which they both bore responsibility. They were talking after church last week, no doubt they had a lot to talk about if they were both going through a difficult time.

It also strikes me that if the narrator weren't terribly involved in Billy Joe's suicide, she wouldn't be throwing flowers into the water a year later. The hindsight in the final verse illustrates the narrator's entire family unit breaking up since Billy Joe's death, symbolic of the family unit destruction in the original act.

In the film, they treated it differently, suggesting Billy Joe killed himself because he thought he was gay. I think that's ridiculous. Hollywood doesn't like killing kids, though, so they had to come up with some alternative I guess.

Lesley said...

Well, I always thought it was a baby too but that was listening to the French version where it's a woman who jumps off the bridge. It's more difficult to believe that a man would feel that sort of remorse. I've never seen the film and the homosexual hypothesis had never occurred to me. So what were they throwing off the bridge in the film? His pink negligé, leather chaps and some gay porn?

beefking said...

As though women have the market on remorse! (not that I'd know anything about it).

In the movie he threw a ragdoll off the bridge. Symbolic of so many things, those ragdolls.

I just read about an interview Bobbie Gentry gave after the original release... she says she didn't have anything in particular in mind.

Yeah right.

Lesley said...

I know, I know. Will no-one think of the men? Here are some other possibilities:

it was something they had stolen (eg. money from a bank, thereby nipping a Bonnie & Clyde saga in the bud)

it was a ring (they had been secretly engaged but the one who doesn't later jump off the bridge has broken it off)

it was a revolver (I can't think of a scenario for this one but when people throw something off a bridge in a film, it's almost always a revolver)

it was a red herring

it was drugs (thus explaining why the protagonist is called Marie-Jeanne)

PS. Don't you love the way the apple pie in the original becomes wine in the French version?

Anonymous said...

Hi Lesley, strangely enough, after our discussion regarding this song I too had been mulling it over in my head. So much so that I decided to conduct a small survey in the pub on Saturday evening just to see what the concensus of opinion was as to the reason for this tragedy.
Intrestingly enough only 10% went with the baby theory, 5% went with the homosexual theory and the other 85% thought Billy-Joe McAllister was the player who missed the penalty against England in Euro 96

Lesley said...

Yes anonymous brother, but that still doesn't explain what they were throwing off the bridge that Sunday does it? (PS. I see there's a Bobbie Gentry duet with Johnny Cash on Youtube - right up your street.)

Ronnie said...

Any number of Scots would happily have seen Gary McAllister jump of the Forth Road Bridge after Scotland v England in Euro '96
Anyway I believe the theory that the narrator is African-American. The food being eaten is consistent with black southern cuisine, the way the mother refers to her daughter as "child" and the reference to "Cotton picking" is also a hint to Southern black culture.
A mixed race relationship would have obviously been a strict taboo in early 20th century, deep southern culture. Perhaps the narrator fell pregnant to Billy-Joe and the object thrown from the bridge was a miscarried or aborted foetus. The relationship has ended and Billy-Joe has taken his own life symbolically jumping from the same bridge.
The conversation at the dinner table seems to make light of the tragedy no one really wants to talk in any depth about it. This flippant attitude is highlighted by the line "Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please" I think the family has suspicions about a relationship but no evidence and really don't want to dig any deeper.
OR! Perhaps Bobbie Gentry was being 100% truthfull in her 2002 interview with Herman Raucher. when asked what the song meant she replied "I made it up. I don’t know what it means" When pressed as to why he jumped from the bridge she laughed and said "I have no idea"

Wendz said...

All I know is that I love those translations.

Btw - I have tagged you. Oops. No obligation though.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Could they have been throwing some Livarot that had been left too long on the sideboard off the Pont de la Garonne?

I prefer Sinead O'Connor's version of this song which can be found on the Help! Album (Aid for Bosnia). The album that was made in 24 hours, remember?

Lesley said...

Ronnie:I suppose we have to allow the possibility that perhaps she did make it up, that perhaps (shock) these people never really existed.

Wendz: Thanks, I'm on to it.

Jonathan: I'd never heard of the Sinead O'Connor version but listened to a snippet on I-Tunes and liked it so much that I bought it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is to the poster who said that the lyrics were about the black southern culture.

Man are you WRONG.

The foods talked about are on the table at ANY rural souhern farm for lunch ( dinner for you Yankees). And, my Mamma called all of us Child until the day she died.

ManicBlu said...

The first interesting post I've read all morning.

It's understandable why Bobbie Gentry would deny any reality associated with this song if it is indeed about a true event.

I'll now be singing this all day. ;)