“There was a virus goin’ ‘round,
Papa caught it and he died last spring.
Now momma doesn’t seem to want to
Do much of anything.”
– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry
Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation. The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].
The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence.
“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound”
– Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.
Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures. It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story. It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness. Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.
“… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
– Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II.
Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry. We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe. And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer. Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?” Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.
Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.
The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.
The first Verse:
It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay.
At dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet.”
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source). Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country. Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.” She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family.
During those early years, her family reportedly had no electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life. One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs like “Billie Joe.”
Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South. I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness. As in: I’m just here telling a story.
The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story. What details support that supposition?
— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense. Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants. It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.
Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together. It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness. If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it.
“Brother” is baling hay. The June 3 date again makes sense. “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa). It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year. It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.
Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear. If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.
Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.
“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.” Clearly, this is southern-speak. Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.”
In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.
In many ways the south is traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called “dinner.” I worked various factory jobs in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner break.”
[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]
Then she said: “I got some
news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Boom. Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now. You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?
Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.
The second verse:
And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please.
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
And mama said: “It’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests. They traded a milk cow for her first piano.
After the divorce, when she and her mother were in California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved. Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing songs. She taught herself guitar, banjo and bass.
A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer. She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl. Now she had all the tools to do something with it.
She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.
Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.
Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved. He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.
“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas. “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash. It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.
Biscuits and black-eyed peas. Again, this is a true southern experience. The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun ahead.
Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets. They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil. Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.
And what southern meal would be complete without biscuits? Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when smothered in gravy.
Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.
Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”
Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower forty”, meaning forty acres. That’s a lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or just work it, we don’t know.
The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground. The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains. You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop. So yes, June 3rd again fits. And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”
In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the plow. So, they are not completely destitute.
Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical. Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history.
The 3rd verse:
And brother said he recollected when he, and
Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge.
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement. The lighting, the sound, the production. And, she was very successful at it.
She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds. I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old. I was blown away: Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.
Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom. I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).
The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos. The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person. Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend.
“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago. This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt. Wanting to fit in, he complies. Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider. He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”
And what is a “picture show”? It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South. It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.” Carroll County is not very populated. Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats). So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.
No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.
Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge? I think this is a possible clue to the story. “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber. #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill. But: why was Billie Joe there? I suspect he was looking for a job. And he got turned down.
Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.
The 4th verse:
And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way:
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge
Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s. She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows.
In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976. It was released again, and it made the charts.
But – she insisted – the title and words to the original song were incorrect. It should have been Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.
Ode to Billy Joe was the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65 in the US). That’s probably the only time in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.
“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976. In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).
The movie, also called Ode to Billy Joe (like the re-released song), was produced and directed by Max Baer, Jr. He’s better known as Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies – not authentic southern – and also the son of Heavyweight champion boxing champion, Max Baer.
Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie. She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.” If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.
At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes. She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation.
About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages. One was short. The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short. Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child. I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.
Anyhow, by 1981 she was twice-divorced and had completely vanished.
Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking). I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.
There is only one verse left. You can tell the song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would never have made it on the radio in 1967.
What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”
Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon. Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it. As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”
We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood. Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her.
The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper. “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please, would you?”
Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South. Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].
So, Brother Taylor. He gets a name, and a title. He’s young. He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator? And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter? The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.
And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge? Doesn’t he have pastoral duties? In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?
Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.
And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?” — What were they throwing off the bridge? Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?
Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.
[5th and final verse]
A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe.
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring.
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Well, papa died. Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him? This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor. So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance. It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.
Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.
The story’s narrator. Where is she? She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?
She is up on the ridge, picking flowers. Then she wanders over to the bridge and drops them into the water. Apparently over and over.
Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped. What goes around, comes around. With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.
There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about. What really happened. The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery. Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.
Bobbie Gentry disappeared. At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.
Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades. We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River. Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was a ring.”
Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots. She takes no visitors and takes no calls. And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.
By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe. Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him. Details that fit with the story.
The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]
But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is. If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out. It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.
Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work. He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate. Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.
No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.
Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age. Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.
In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.
That’s sad. It’s a strong message. It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.
With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.
Joe Girard © 2020
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
 Some bio links: http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
 Photo citation: By Capitol Records – http://rock60-70.ru/albums/bobbie-gentry-%E2%80%8E-patchwork-1971-usa-folkpopsoul.php, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58064389
Afterthoughts & Things not included
Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.
The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters. Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity. You can’t jump off that bridge anymore. It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt. Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints. Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses. It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime. Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below). The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.” Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.