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

May 21, 2021
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 the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, which was hosting the Spinsters’ Ball, a white-tie affair for the local elite. Zantzinger arrived very drunk and wielding a white toy cane that he used to hit almost everyone who came within reach. Hattie Carroll was working as a barmaid, and Zantzinger ordered a drink. She was busy serving another customer, so did not respond immediately. “N*****, did you hear me ask for a drink?” Zantzinger shouted, adding “I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a n*****.” He then struck Hattie hard on the shoulder with his cane. Hattie collapsed, saying to her fellow barmaids, “That man has upset me so, I feel deathly ill.” She fell unconscious and was taken to hospital. Meanwhile, the police arrested Zantzinger, charging him with disorderly conduct and two counts of assault. The following morning, news came that Hattie Carroll had died in hospital, but by then Zantzinger was already out on bail. The police issued a murder warrant for Zantzinger and again allowed him out on bail.

Hattie Carroll had serious health problems, including an enlarged heart, hardened arteries and high blood pressure. She died of a brain haemorrhage, which, the medical examination into her death concluded, had been brought about by the fear and anger caused by the blow from Zantzinger. He was found guilty of manslaughter, the maximum sentence for which was 10 years in prison. The sentence handed down to Zantzinger, however, was just six months.

The day of Zantzinger’s sentencing, 28th August 1963, was a momentous one for the civil rights movement, coinciding with the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC, in which a crowd of around 200,000 heard Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. Sharing the stage with King that day was Dylan, who sang two new songs: “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” On the way back to New York the following day, Dylan read a short newspaper article about Zantzinger’s killing of Hattie Carroll and the sentence he received. Within a few weeks, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was written.

To appreciate how good the song is and how quickly Dylan was progressing as a songwriter at this time, it is helpful to compare it with two previous songs he had written about the murder of African Americans. “The Death of Emmett Till” was written in 1962, but never appeared on any studio album until it was included on The Bootleg Series Vol 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964, released in 2010. Dylan himself described it as “bullshit” and it is clearly the work of a songwriter who has not fully mastered his craft. It begins: “’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago, / When a young boy from Chicago town walked through a Southern door, / This boy’s dreadful tragedy you should all remember well, / The colour of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.”

It then depicts the horrors of Till’s killing at the hands of two brothers, and the subsequent trial of the murderers at which they were found not guilty (a year later, they cheerfully admitted their guilt).

“If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing,” Dylan admonishes his listeners, “a crime that’s so unjust/Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, and your mind is filled with dust.” It ends: “But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give, / We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

The outrage at the cruelty and injustice is genuine, but its expression is hackneyed and lacks linguistic inventiveness. This song, one might safely say, was not uppermost in the minds of the committee members who awarded Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

Considerably more sophisticated is “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” one of the songs Dylan played at the Washington march, which was written about a year later. It is about the 1963 killing of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi state secretary of the NAACP. Evers was assassinated by the white supremacist and Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. Dylan, however, chooses to play down Beckwith’s role in Evers’s death. He does not even mention his name. Rather, the song presents the killer as a victim of a pernicious system. When Beckwith dies, Dylan’s last verse says, his grave will have: “Carved next to his name / His epitaph plain / Only a pawn in their game.

Every previous verse ends (with a slight variation in the first): “But it ain’t him to blame / He’s only a pawn in their game.

The politicians, soldiers, governors and police, Dylan suggests, use the poor white man “like a tool.” They tell him that he is better than his black neighbours, and teach him to hate and to kill. This is very far from Dylan’s previous exhortations to “speak out against this kind of thing” and to “make this great land of ours a greater place to live.” Just as “Only a Pawn in Their Game” refuses to directly blame the killer, so it avoids urging any particular response. What it presents is not a moral judgment, an imperative, or an expression of revulsion, but rather a largely impersonal analysis.

The song is an advance on “The Death of Emmett Till,” but there is something uncomfortable, to put it mildly, about a white, university-educated young man telling a large group of black people protesting, among other injustices, against their racist exclusion from university (which Medgar Evers had fought hard) that they should not blame the man who killed one of their leaders. And this, I think, leads us to something important about “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and its use of “cultivated illiteracy.”

All three are “finger-pointing songs,” but in very different ways. “The Death of Emmett Till” accuses the murderers and asks us to stand up to them. “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” on the other hand, points to the racially unjust society that creates such people. In “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan takes aims at both but adds a third—the people on his own side of the civil rights struggle.

The song has a satisfyingly clear structure. The story of the killing is given in the first verse, the background of Zantzinger’s life in the second, the life and character of Hattie Carroll in the third, and in the fourth and final verse we hear about the trial and the light sentence Zantzinger received. After each of the first three verses, Dylan sings this refrain: “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears / Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears.

After the final verse the last two lines of this refrain are changed to “Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.” The usual interpretation is that Dylan is suggesting that we should weep, not for the death of Hattie Carroll, or for the inequality highlighted by the comparison between her and Zantzinger, but rather at the injustice of a legal system which handed out such a paltry sentence.

But there is another more satisfying interpretation that hangs on solving the song’s great puzzle: who are those who “philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears”? Neil Corcoran in the essay collection Do You, Mr Jones? has suggested that they are “the armchair philosophes of the liberal-left.” This is surely right as far as it goes, but what does it actually mean to “philosophise disgrace and to criticise all fears?” Christopher Ricks in Dylan’s Visions of Sin has suggested that Dylan has in mind those “who hold forth and who spin philosophical excuses for what is simply disgrace.” But Simon Armitage gets us closer, I think, when in his Oxford poetry lecture “We Need to Talk About Robert: Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature,” he accepts Corcoran’s suggestion about the philosophes but adds that it might include Dylan himself.

Where does Dylan philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears? Well, for one, in “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Addressing a crowd of people who had every reason to fear people like the killer, Dylan had told them that Beckwith was not the problem. Rather than empathising with their horror, Dylan had offered a rather lofty analysis.

In “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” Dylan seems determined to reverse this. Though often interpreted to suggest we should withhold our tears until we hear about the light sentence Zantzinger received, it is striking that Dylan’s own emotions are engaged from the very beginning. In contrast to “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” in which Beckwith is not named, William Zantzinger’s name—or rather, a corruption of it—is the first thing we hear. Dylan seems so insistent that the name is the first thing we hear that the song has no musical introduction, not even a couple of bars of guitar-strumming. In a move designed to give the opening line further emotional impact, Dylan leaves out the “t” in Zantzinger’s name, so the song begins: “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll.” This allows Dylan maximum sneering. “William Zzzanzzinger,” he hisses. Equally, we know straight away how he feels about Hattie Carroll (whose race is never mentioned: we just know she must be black). Armitage criticised Dylan’s use of the word “poor” in this first line as being redundant because of what we later learn about Hattie Carroll in the song. What he misses, I think, is that Dylan wants to express sympathy with her: she is “poor Hattie Carroll” in more than one sense.

Dylan is determined to separate himself from the kind of intellectual who offers the impersonal analysis he had offered in “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” At every turn, he expresses, and invites us to share, an emotional identification with the victims of injustice, inequality and prejudice. And this is the use to which he puts his “cultivated illiteracy.” For me, the most powerful line in the song comes at the end of the verse about Hattie when he sings, “And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger,” his voice dripping with indignation. Think how much more affecting this is than the more grammatically correct “And she never did anything to William Zanzinger.” The language Dylan uses is chosen to identify with those on whose behalf he is singing. Armitage criticises the redundancy in the phrase “rich wealthy parents” in the verse about Zantzinger, but its purpose is to put Dylan on the side of those who use phrases like that—ie almost everybody except the university educated philosophers and critics.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a much better song than its two predecessors, and one of the things that makes it so great is the way it uses ordinary, “illiterate” language, not only to protest against the injustices of society, but also to arouse anger and indignation at people like William Zantzinger as well as to evoke pity, empathy and solidarity for people like “poor Hattie Carroll.”

This essay appears in “Dylan at 80: It used to go like that, and now it goes like this,” edited by Gary Browning and Constantine Sandis, released October 2021 by Imprint Academic