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The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

‘Two sides of every story’? Related to this title is the the death of the man who ‘inspired’ the song by Bob Dylan.Compare the facts as told by Dylan and those described in The Times (Ben Hoyle January 12, 2009 reprinted in The Australian). Dylan: “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.”

Times: “A large man, he became aggressive, using a toy cane to hit several employees and insulting them racially. When Ms Carroll was too slow serving him a bourbon, he hit her, too. Hours later she collapsed, dying in hospital the following day.”

Dylan: “She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children… Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane That sailed through the air and came down through the room,”

Times: “The real Hattie Carroll was black (although the song does not spell this out), a 51-year-old mother of 11 (not 10, as Dylan sang) who lived in Baltimore, was a pillar of her local church and suffered from heart problems.”

Dylan: “And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.”

Times: “He was charged with homicide, but this was reduced to manslaughter after the medical report came through citing the cause of death as a brain haemorrhage brought on by the stress of the incident. The lenient sentence was designed to keep Zantzinger out of state prison, where it was feared that the majority black prison population might turn on him.

Dylan: “William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him”

Times: “In the song, he owns a 600-acre tobacco farm with “rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him”. The reality was slightly less grand: Zantzinger worked on his land alongside black and white labourers.

What the Times (and therefore the Australian) forget is that the song is a depiction of a political reality and uses a real story to convey that reality. So be careful all those literalists out there, Dylan songs may not be factually correct. ‘You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears bury the rag deep in your face’ is both a dramatic device and the sermon of the song. ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll ‘ does tell the tragic story of both Hattie Carroll and a whole generation of black workers. Zantzinger ‘was also convicted in 1991 of a scam in which he charged poor black workers rents on ramshackle properties that he no longer owned. He was fined $US62,000 and sentenced to 2400 hours of community service’ (Times article).

The sermon is difficult to decipher but I think its means that liberals who abstract the suffering of the poor should pay heed to the reality of injustice (‘the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom’), class (‘he spoke through his cloak both deep and distinguished’), corruption (‘high office relations in the government of Maryland’) and racism (‘swear and sneering and his tongue it was smiling’).

Ian Curr
December 2009 (updated April 2012)

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