... back when, y'know, "It was the third of June...."
A few things about this song: It knocked "All you need is love" off the top of the charts, and spawned a movie. The lyrics themselves are a masterpiece of minimalist storytelling. It is perhaps a sign of how well told it is, that most people focus on what the story doesn't tell: what was it that the girl and Billie threw off the bridge? Why did Billie go over the edge anyway?
Most people look into stories without realzing they are looking into a kind of mirror, and what they read is, in a sense, a reflection of their own mind, and their interpretations tell us more about them than it does about the actual story. For instance, many say the thing thrown off the bridge was an unplanned baby, or a bottle of pills, or a wedding ring. Billie Joe, some say, jumped off as a repressed homosexual coming of age in a time and place the hated gays. Or he was molested. Or he was diving after that wedding ring or bottle of pills.
But none of that is in the song. All of those are projections by the interpreters, and tell us more about them than about the song. Gentry herself said she didn't know what the thing was that was thrown off the bridge, and, to her, it didn't really matter, except to give a point of connection between the narrator and Billie Joe. Plus it provided an easy rhyme. For her, the story was about the casual cruelty we inflict upon each other, and how the family is callously discussing the suicide of young Billy, never realizing that his girlfriend is sitting at the table. The conclusion of the song emphasizes this point, in the way the mother and daughter now have a shared grief over losing the men they loved, and yet they do not connect over that, and prefer to feel their grief privately.
For me, the real question is this: What's the big deal that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahachie bridge? This bridge?
But that's just me.