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Bob Dylan at 80: Why “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is his greatest protest song

The singer-songwriter shows anger at the racist killer—and empathy for the innocent victim

By Ray Monk  
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the March on Washington, 28th August, 1963 Credit: Alamy

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the March on Washington, 28th August, 1963 Credit: Alamy

The British folksinger Ewan MacColl has spoken dismissively of the “cultivated illiteracy” of Bob Dylan’s topical songs. Stripped of its intention to disparage Dylan’s work, the phrase is remarkably apt with regard to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which I and many others, including, it seems, Dylan himself, regard as one of his very best songs.

The song tells the true story of the killing of a poor, black woman in her fifties by William Zantzinger, a wealthy white tobacco farmer in his twenties. The killing took place in the early hours of 9th February, 1963 at…

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