Hey, remember the Bob Dylan Rankings? I haven’t done one in over a year and a half, but now it’s back (at least, for today). I’m abandoning my old self-imposed chronology, and I’m going back to writing about whatever song strikes my fancy. Today’s song: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
(Also, YouTube has really cracked down on Bob Dylan songs, so most of the videos will have to be covers or live versions.)
“I revere Bob Dylan, but is that an awful line, or what? Who in the hell philosophizes disgrace? Who does this speak to? Do you think there is anyone in the world who gets up in the morning and says to himself, ‘I think I’ll go and philosophize some disgrace today?’ What does that even mean? It’s not that it’s vague in the sense that Dylan is so often marvelously vague and evocative. It is more like it is specific but clumsy. It doesn’t sound good… It’s awful. It’s not a particularly good song, although Dylan’s admirers will soberly insist that it is a great song, and I suppose they are entitled to their opinion.” —Bill James
Yes, Bill James, I am entitled to that opinion. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a great song—though not one of Bob Dylan’s best—and the clumsiness that James identifies is part of what makes it great.
“Hattie Carroll” is a remarkably literal song. It starts with the simple, matter-of-fact line, “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll” (and by “starts” I mean it really starts with that line—the first sound, before any music, is Dylan’s nasally voice spewing out that clunky name), and proceeds to tell the story through a bunch of meandering, rhyme-less clauses strung together somewhat artlessly—the word “and” is sung 31 times. All the stretched out sentences and nested clauses make it somewhat hard to follow, but the gist is clear: William Zanzinger, a rich young Maryland landowner killed Hattie Carroll, a black servant, by hitting her in the head with his cane at a white tie function where he was a guest and she a servant. Though he was convicted of the crime, he was sentenced to only six months in prison.
This is a somewhat oversimplified version of the events. In fact, the blow from Zantzinger’s* cane did not kill Carroll, but shortly after it she suffered a lethal stroke, which may have been caused by the blow from the cane. And—as James notes in his account of the crime in his book, Popular Crime—the light sentence was largely due to a quirk of Maryland law that would have forced Zantzinger into a state prison—where the judge feared he’d be abused by the black inmates—if he faced a longer sentence.
*In one of the weirder licenses Dylan took with the story, he omitted the “t” from Zantzinger’s last name in his lyrics. So I use “Zanzinger” to refer to the song, but “Zantzinger” to refer to the person.
Some have criticized Dylan’s song for twisting these facts. Unlike other cases Dylan wrote about, like the Medgar Evers murder, the Hattie Carroll case wasn’t super famous when Dylan wrote his song, so most listeners were getting their facts from the somewhat misleading lyrics. This is a valid criticism, but it has little to do with what makes the song work. “Hattie Carroll” is not really about informing people about racial injustice, though that is the subject of the lyrics. The song is really more about peoples’ reaction to injustice, which is why the song is sung to “you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears.”*
*Though James dwells on the phrase “philosophize disgrace” and all its clumsiness, I’ve always been more confused by the second half of the line. What, in the context of the song, does it mean to “criticize all fears”? Fears of what? Racism? Murder? And who’s being criticized? Anyone who feels fear? The fears themselves? Or people who criticize others for feeling fear? Does anyone do that?
Of course, James is right to call that phrase “specific but clumsy,” but I think that works to its advantage. It does two things. First, it turns the issue back on the audience itself, to the point of even satirizing them. If you isolate the verbs in that line—“philosophize” and “criticize”—you get words that describe what amateur theorists, like the New York City liberals that were most of Dylan’s audience at the time, do. These were people who could philosophize and criticize segregation and racism, but had no real experience with it. The objects connected to those verbs on the other hand—“disgrace” and “fear”—are primal emotions. People like Hattie Carroll probably felt them daily, but many who wrote and listened to folk songs could only philosophize and analyze them.
On top of that, the line’s clumsiness contrasts beautifully with the simplicity of what come next: “Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears.” This string of simple, monosyllabic words conveys a clear command: Don’t just sit there and pity the poor blacks of the South. Crying about racial inequality can, at times, dehumanize people like Hattie Carroll almost as much as the racism itself, turning her into nothing more than a victim. It is this admonishment that underlies what is, I contend, one of the best verses Dylan ever wrote, a simple description of Carroll’s life:
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
The repetition of the word “table” really drives home the monotony of Carroll’s tasks, culminating in the indignity of having to go to “a whole other level” to empty the ashtrays, but there is also the image of a woman doing her job, however degrading it may seem, with quiet dignity. Carroll’s life may have been full of hardship, but she was still a person, and not just fodder for folk songs.
The clumsiness of Dylan’s refrain is a reminder of the dangers of “philosophizing” and “criticizing” to the point where you forget that real people are involved. It is only after Dylan’s last verse, when the judge’s attempt to prove, “that the courts are on the level… And that even the nobles get properly handled” goes awry that Dylan acknowledges the tragedy: “Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.” It’s not Hattie Carroll’s life that is a travesty, but the society that has let her down.