[Here is the second post of the series of articles Mike Raine thought about doing on individual songs. They focus on background, meaning, and anecdotes, to varying degrees.]
From the earliest stages of his career Bob Dylan has had an exceptional talent for chronicling racial injustices. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is arguably the best example of this. But being a master of words doesn’t necessarily mean you get all the facts right. While the majority of the song is accurate, Dylan omits and simplifies certain facts along the way for the sake of a rhyme or brevity.
Have a listen to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrollwhile reading the rest of this post
For those not familiar with the song, it is about the 1963 murder of a young black woman, Hattie Carroll, who worked as a bar maid at upscale Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. Her murderer, William Devereux Zantzinger, was an upper-class 24-year-old tobacco farmer who drunkenly assaulted Carroll among others with a cane. His murder charge was downgraded to a charge of man-slaughter and he received only a 6-month sentence.
Right off the bat, Dylan make his first mistake by omitting the “t” in Zantzinger’s name, thus spelling and pronouncing it “Zanzinger”. Why he does this is anyone’s guess. The most likely reason is that it was simply easier to sing and it sounded better. It is a small mistake but an odd to make in such a journalistic song. Similarly, Dylan states that Carroll had ten children when in fact she had eleven. It is assumed that he did this because the single syllable word “ten” fit the meter better than “eleven”. Who said you needed to let the facts get in the way of the rhythm?
More important are the facts of the case that Dylan omits. He does not let on that the original charges against Zantzinger were for disorderly conduct and not murder. Zantzinger had been very drunk at the ball and was spewing racial epitaphs at the black servers and hitting people with a toy cane he had bought earlier in the day at a farm fair. By omitting this fact, Dylan gives the impression that authorities let an alleged murderer loose on bail. In reality, Carroll did not die till the morning after the ball and the charge of murder was added days later.
As well, Dylan makes no mention of the reduced charge of man-slaughter and states only that Zantzinger received a six-month sentence. By not making any mention of the reduced charge, Dylan implies that Zantzinger got 6-months for murder. While still an injustice worth your contempt, a 6-month sentence for man-slaughter makes much more sense than a 6-month sentence for murder. The reason for the reduced charge was also left out of the lyrics. The three-judge court agreed with the defense lawyers that Carroll death was likely caused by hyper-tension, of which she was known to suffer, brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s racist verbal assaults. The judges believed that being hit by a toy cane which did not leave any mark on her body was not enough to cause death and there must have been other contributing factors that were out of Zantzinger’s control.
It is still a joke of a sentence either way you look at it. When asked by the Herald Tribune to comment on his sentence, Zantzinger replied that he would “just miss a lot of snow.” His wife, Jane, added, “nobody treats his niggers as well as Bobby does around here.” Not exactly the greatest defence ever muttered. To add insult to injury, Zantzinger received his light sentence on August 28, 1963, the same day the Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”, at which Dylan attended and performed.
These omitted facts do not detract from the song’s basic point, that Zantzinger’s actions were the result of social and racial prejudice and that the 6-month sentence was a grave injustice. You have to give Dylan credit for making the song as informative as it in only five minutes and forty-seven seconds. Dylan reportedly wrote the song in one night after a friend showed him a New York Times’ article about the case. Writing such a song in one sitting using only a single news article as your research is an impressive feat. There are various accounts regarding where Dylan wrote the song. Some say he wrote in an all-night writing session at a cafe on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan while others say he wrote at Joan Baez’s house in California. Where he wrote the song and in how many hours is a fascinating tidbit of information but not terribly important.
It goes without saying that Zantzinger was no fan of the song that made him infamous. Zantzinger never commented on the song prior to 2001 when discussed it with Howard Sounes, author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. Zantzinger told Sounes that Dylan was a “no-account son of a bitch, he’s just like a scum of a scum bag of the Earth; I should have sued him and put him in jail.” However, Zantzinger never took action to prevent Dylan from performing the song and using it for commercial gain. Clinton Heylin, author of the Dylan biography, Behind the Shades Take Two said that the song “verges on libellous” and that Dylan masterful use of words and drama does not excuse such slander. Zantzinger dies on January 3, 2009 at the age of 69. The song continued to haunt him till the day he died. Almost every news article reporting on his death focused on his part in Carroll’s death and his place music history.
Regardless of the accuracy of the lyrics, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remains classic in the pantheon of American song writing. Dylan’s conviction reveals itself in every word. More importantly, the song made an injustice that would have gone barely noticed by white America and turned into a story that would never die. Most song writers could only dream of having such impact with a single song.