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. Continue reading