Posts Tagged ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’

Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #44: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

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

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Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #23: Blowin’ In The Wind

Grandma Simpson: How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
Homer: Seven!
Lisa: No, Dad, it’s a rhetorical question.
Homer: Rhetorical, eh?  Eight!

—“Mother Simpson,” 1995

Like so many great lines of literature before it (“To be or not to be?” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” etc.), the refrain of Bob Dylan’s most famous song has become a cliché. The line—“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”—has become so commonplace and simple after nearly 50 years in the public consciousness that it is easy to laugh at the plainness of the sentiment.

Even at the time of its release, though, people were laughing at “Blowin’ in the Wind.” According to Bob Spitz, Dave Von Ronk, one of Dylan’s early mentors, had a pretty dismissive reaction to the song:  “Jesus, Bobby—what an incredibly dumb song! I mean, what the hell is ‘blowing in the wind’?…I figured Bobby could grind out a tune like that on the worst day he ever had in his life.” Even Dylan himself would occasionally sound modest about the song, saying in 1966, “I was never satisfied with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I wrote that in ten minutes. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ was a lucky classic song…but it was one-dimensional.”

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A Book By a Songwriter: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

Bob Dylan did some amazing things and lived through some amazing times: He was labeled, by some, the voice of the 60s. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival. He met The Beatles. He converted to Christianity. He hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Johnny Cash.

Should we be surprised, then, that none of that stuff made it into the first part of Dylan’s planned three-part autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One? Should we be surprised to find out that Dylan has instead devoted nearly half of the book to recounting the creations of New Morning and Oh Mercy, two albums that are, shall we say, less than canonical? Not really. Dylan has never been one to conform to expectations, and he has never really played into the commonly accepted narrative of his own life. He ran away from being labeled “the voice of a generation,” he retreated from the spotlight at the moments of his greatest fame, and he has rarely been open about many things that fans seem the most interested in, like his conversion and disillusion with Christianity.

In fact, Dylan spends most of his autobiography talking about other people. He talks about Dave Von Ronk and Daniel Lanois and Suze Rotolo. He likes history too. Often, Dylan simply retells facts from history class, or relays the biographies of historical figures: Continue reading