Mississippi city had quite the experience from it being ‘the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day …’

Published 9:16 pm Saturday, June 3, 2023

By Rita Howell, Columnist

[First published June 3, 2008]

Today’s the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day.  If those words ring a bell with you, then you’re showing your age.

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[More than] forty-one years ago, during the summer of 1967, the whole country became acquainted with black-eyed peas and the Tallahatchie River as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” became a number one hit song.

The ballad describes a rural family’s noonday meal during which the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge, is nonchalantly discussed. The family seems unaware that Billie Joe is the boyfriend of the song’s narrator.

Gentry, a Chickasaw County native, sings accompanied mostly by an acoustic guitar. She went on to win three Grammy awards for her work that year.

The song always makes me think of junior high cheerleader practice. That’s where I was during much of the summer of ‘67.

As I remember, there was much speculation as to exactly which Tallahatchie River bridge the fictional Billie Joe jumped off. In the September 14, 1967, issue of The Panolian, there is a front page photo of the Panola Avenue bridge, with the caption asking “Was this the point from which Billie Joe McAllister jumped into the Tallahatchie River?”

It seems a Phoenix, Ariz., radio station, caught up in the Billie Joe craze, started a rumor that the Tallahatchie River Bridge from which he jumped was set to be destroyed. Somehow Station KRIZ determined that it was the bridge near Batesville that was set to be torn down. A letter writing campaign ensued, with Panolian editor Hunt Howell good-naturedly participating.  He published letters from Arizona, with some writers opining that the bridge should be torn down, to prevent further mishaps. In response, Batesville Junior High teacher Mary Ellis invited her sixth-grade students to write letters to the editor expressing their own opinions about whether the bridge should stand or go.

“I think Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, but I don’t think the bridge should be torn down because I don’t want to have to drive through the river,” wrote Sandy Lambert.

“If we destroy the bridge, it won’t help anyone,” stated Charlie Dulany. “Billie Joe shouldn’t have been out there. Any person who would go out to a bridge and jump off has to be a pretty dumb fellow.”

My sister, Betty Gail Williams, took this all a step further: “I do not want the bridge destroyed. It is a very fine bridge to throw things off. It is fine for people who want to jump into the muddy river. It should be made into a national shrine for the benefit of those people who want to come and jump or throw things into the water all for free. Actually President Johnson should be invited to dedicate this shrine.”

As Editor Howell pointed out at the time, “Panola County authorities have not yet reacted to the cries to ‘destroy’ or ‘save the bridge.’ One can guess, however, that with something like $60,000 invested in a bridge less than 10 years old and serving quite adequately, the board would view with alarm any movement that would call for its destruction.”

Howell even turned up research that revealed Batesville Mayor Dan Ferguson (the editor’s next door neighbor) had himself jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge … more than once. A few issues later, Howell was called upon to clarify the report: Ferguson said he was not attempting to take his life. He was just out for a swim.