Ode to Bil­lie Joe

Rock of water, rock of truth

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

IF I say ‘Tal­la­hatchie River’, some­where in the south­ern hemi­sphere of your mind you might re­call Ode to Bil­lie Joe. You might hear those open­ing lines: ‘It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day/i was out chop­pin’ cot­ton and my brother was balin’ hay’. You may even re­mem­ber the boy and girl who ‘threw some­thing off the Tal­la­hatchie Bridge’ bet­ter than you re­call the song’s main theme: ‘Bil­lie Joe Mcal­lis­ter jumped off the Tal­la­hatchie Bridge.’

I was born in that hot dusty delta and our fields rolled down to the Tal­la­hatchie— Choctaw In­dian word for ‘rock of wa­ters’. When the song came out it felt as if Bob­bie Gen­try had put our moon­scape of cot­ton and soy beans on the map. Her husky voice and the hyp­notic beat mys­ti­fied her fans, who wanted to know just one thing: what was thrown off the bridge be­fore Bil­lie Joe jumped off? A ring? A gun? A baby?

I al­ways thought the lyrics had a ma­jor flaw: it was un­likely that Bil­lie Joe’s plunge would have been fa­tal. The bridge was low and the river was slower. The shock of hit­ting the water would re­mind a man of some­thing worse than his trou­bles: the water moc­casins—poi­sonous snakes— which thrive in the muddy river. In real life, Bil­lie Joe would have swum to the bank and re-eval­u­ated his death wish.

By the time the song had dis­lodged The Bea­tles’ All You Need Is Love as num­ber one, I was a rare South­ern voice at a New Eng­land women’s col­lege and didn’t feel in­clined to show off my Tal­la­hatchie in­sider knowl­edge. I lis­tened in amaze­ment as my lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor com­pared the song to Romeo and Juliet and a Hegel scholar de­scribed it as a polemic on abor­tion. An ar­ti­cle in the Yale stu­dent pa­per claimed that Bil­lie Joe jumped be­cause he’d been drafted, a more con­vinc­ing the­ory in 1967 when Lyn­don John­son was send­ing 45,000 more troops to Viet­nam.

Just as spec­u­la­tion died down, a rad­i­cal lawyer an­nounced that Bil­lie Joe jumped into the river be­cause he was the son of one of the men guilty of the kid­nap­ping and lynch­ing 12 years ear­lier of the 14-year old black boy Em­mett Till. Prob­lem was, Bil­lie Joe was fic­tion; Em­mett Till was not.

Mem­ory is tran­sient and it fluc­tu­ates, but I think Au­gust 1955 is when I be­gan to sus­pect that ‘fake news’ is like kudzu, the vine in the South that even­tu­ally smoth­ers ev­ery liv­ing thing. I was eight when Em­mett Till’s body was pulled out of a bend in the Tal­la­hatchie called Pe­can Point, the spot where my grand­fa­ther taught me to bait my hooks with chicken necks and an­gle for cat­fish. A boy was fish­ing there on that Au­gust morn­ing when he saw what looked like a dark foot pok­ing out of the water.

Em­mett Till’s crime? Like me, he was vis­it­ing rel­a­tives. He’d gone with his cousins to hang out at coun­try store in Money, Mis­sis­sippi. He went in­side to buy some gum and al­legedly flirted with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, whose hus­band owned the store. Ac­cord­ing to FBI tran­scripts re­leased in 2007, when Mrs Bryant left the store to get a gun from her car, Em­mett let out a ‘wolf whis­tle’.

Within hours of his dis­ap­pear­ance, folks swore they’d seen ‘the boy’ get on a train in Green­wood and that he was back in Chicago with his mama. The lo­cal news­pa­pers in­sisted the whole thing was a plot by ‘out­side ag­i­ta­tors’ to bring dis­grace on Mis­sis­sippi. Claims that he’d drowned while swim­ming only evap­o­rated when the po­lice re­vealed that he was found with an iron fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.

In the end, Mis­sis­sippi brought dis­grace on it­self. The trial of Mrs Bryant’s hus­band and his half-brother ended in an all-white jury find­ing them in­no­cent. A few months later, they con­fessed their guilt in a story for Look mag­a­zine, but dou­ble jeop­ardy meant they couldn’t be tried again for the same crime. They col­lected $4,000 for their story.

Mem­ory is tran­sient and it fluc­tu­ates ‘You tell the sto­ries so long true’ they seem

Carolyn Bryant is still alive and 10 years ago agreed to talk to the his­to­rian Ti­mothy Tyson. She told him that the cru­cial piece of her tes­ti­mony was un­true, that Till never ‘grabbed her around the waist and ut­tered ob­scen­i­ties’. ‘You tell th­ese sto­ries for so long that they seem true,’ she con­fessed. ‘Noth­ing that boy did could ever jus­tify what hap­pened to him.’

I am writ­ing this in a small cot­tage on a farm in Suf­folk. The main room houses a col­lec­tion de­voted to the Amer­i­can Civil Rights Move­ment; above my desk is a pho­to­graph of the Tal­la­hatchie River next to a long shelf of books on Em­mett Till. Three months af­ter his death, Rosa Parks, haunted by Till’s mur­der, re­fused to give up her seat on a bus in Mont­gomery, Alabama. Her ar­rest sparked a bus boy­cott that brought a young min­is­ter called Martin Luther King Jr into the move­ment.

The lat­est vol­ume added to my col­lec­tion is The Blood of Em­mett Till, the book that con­tains Mrs Bryant’s con­fes­sion. It is one of the gravest ‘post truths’ in Amer­i­can history. I only wish the writer had re­vealed it 10 years ear­lier. There’s no guar­an­tee the rev­e­la­tion would have re­duced the venom of hate that still stalks Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape, but it might, just might, make us all wary of fake news and post truths which are re­ally only lies.

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