Cover Story: (20) The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan, Christy Moore or Cage the Elephant
Another welcome contribution from Bill Taylor gets Cover Story up to 20. Bill and I go back an awful long way; we were school misfits who somehow managed to get footholds in journalism and ended up being entrusted with the mentoring of young, somewhat better educated recruits. Bill left the North East, first for New York and Pennsylvania, then Canada where he has lived for most of his adult life. I left the North East for London - "you'll be back in nine months," said a friend at my farewell drinks - and have since lived not only there but in Bristol, Abu Dhabi and France. I have not returned to the North East, except to see family and friends and to endure Sunderland AFC. Here, Bill looks at a powerful Bob Dylan song and compares very different versions ...
It’s perhaps not widely known (or perhaps it is) that The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is based on a true story, with Bob Dylan at his journalistic best.
Back in the days when I used to do writing seminars for young journalists, I’d start by reciting the opening verse:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond-ringed finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gathering and the cops were called in and his weapon took from him…
With a little bit of editing, it wasn’t at all a bad way into the story. Above all, I would tell the students, it had the rhythm and flow that was essential to keep the reader’s attention as the tale unfolded. You were pulled effortlessly into the narrative.
The song, featured on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’, has a 19th century, pre-Civil War southern states feel to it.
In fact, the tragedy, atrocity, call it what you will, happened in 1963, only a few months before the album came out, in a part of Maryland that still operated under strict rules of segregation.
The details, as Dylan laid them out, are pretty accurate except for the omission of the “t” in William Devereux Zantzinger’s name.
Zantzinger was the 24-year-old scion of a wealthy family of tobacco farmers. Though he was arrested for first-degree murder, the charge was reduced to manslaughter and a three-man panel of judges jailed him for six months.
The sentence came on August 28, 1963, the day civil-rights leader – and martyr-to-be – Martin Luther King made his epochal “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C.
Dylan had been present and, after reading of the case on his way back to New York, wrote the song.
For my money, his remains the definitive version.
Backed by a simple, strummed guitar line, he lets the story tell itself without adornment or undue emphasis. The words pour out in a remorseless flood of outrage. The fact that Dylan throttles back his emotions only serves to underline them.
The song has been covered by a number of artists, including Judy Collins, Julie Felix and Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones. I was fascinated to find a version by Martin Carthy.
But, having listened to it, I can’t say that I’m much impressed. It’s idiosyncratically mannered and smacks of Carthy trying rather too hard to be… Martin Carthy.
In Salut! Live’s recent Cover Story on Beeswing, mention is made of Christy Moore’s version of Hattie Carroll (is there a significant folk song out there that Moore HASN’T covered?).
The clip is a live version. It’s Christy Moore at his best – straightforward, powerful and heartfelt. Until I started writing this piece, I would have put it as a close second to Dylan’s original.
But now… I’m not so sure. I came across a band I’d never heard of, Cage the Elephant, an alternative/indy/garage outfit formed in Kentucky in 2006 but later based in England.
As they started to play Hattie Carroll with lead singer Matt Schultz almost whispering the lyric, I was thinking, “What the hell is this?”
Five minutes later, I was captivated. Idiosyncratic is again the word that comes to mind. But here, it’s a good thing. The momentum builds with quiet inexorability, the murmuring, growling instruments in the background giving the whole thing an unsettling feel.
Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I love it. This and Christy Moore’s version just joined Dylan’s on my Spotify playlist.
As for William Zantzinger, he dismissed the song as a “total lie” that had no effect upon his life. He was only sorry, he said, that he hadn’t sued that “no-account son of a bitch” Dylan and “put him in jail”.
After Zantzinger began speculating in property, he once again fell foul of the law and in 1991 was sentenced to 19 months for “deceptive trade practices”. Financial malfeasance put him behind bars for three times as long as taking a life.
He died in 2009, aged 69. His family refused to release any details of the funeral. Thus, there is no record of how many people buried the rag deep in their face, for now was the time for their tears.