Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a song that tells the tragic story of the death of Hattie Carroll, an African American barmaid who was killed by a wealthy young white man in 1963. This song continues to be relevant today, as it speaks to issues of racial inequality and social injustice that still exist in our society.
The Story Behind the Song
In February 1963, Hattie Carroll was working as a barmaid at a party held at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. During the party, she was assaulted by a wealthy young white man named William Zantzinger, who used his cane to strike her repeatedly. She died several hours later from her injuries.
Zantzinger was charged with murder, but the charges were reduced to manslaughter. He was ultimately sentenced to just six months in jail and a $500 fine. The leniency of his sentence sparked outrage and protests, especially from the African American community.
The lyrics of Dylan’s song vividly describe the events of that tragic night. The first verse sets the scene:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gathering
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder
The song goes on to describe the trial and the injustice of the sentence:
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears
In the final verse, Dylan puts the focus back on Hattie Carroll:
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
The Legacy of the Song
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is considered one of Dylan’s most powerful songs, and it has been covered by many other artists over the years. It was written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and it helped to bring attention to issues of racial inequality and social injustice.
The song’s message is still relevant today, as we continue to grapple with these same issues. It serves as a reminder that we must continue to fight for justice and equality for all people, regardless of their race, gender, or social status.