Ode to Billie Joe
Rock of water, rock of truth
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.