The Story Behind a Bob Dylan Classic
William Zantzinger, Hattie Carroll & Bob Dylan
The strange name William Zantzinger is familiar to almost everybody who knows Bob Dylan's music - Zantzinger is the monster who beats a hotel maid to death in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, one of the songs on Dylan's 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Bob Dylan performing the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll in 1964
Although often labeled a protest singer, Dylan has never been a very political animal and he recorded relatively few protest songs. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is one of them. It is a true story. William Zantzinger, a rich young tobacco farmer, turned up drunk at a society ball in Baltimore, Maryland, on 8 February 1963. He told 51-year-old Hattie Carroll to pour him a drink. When Hattie failed to serve Zantzinger as swiftly as he wanted he abused the maid verbally and tapped her with his walking cane, which as Dylan sang Zantzinger "twirled around his diamond ring finger". Carroll was so outraged she collapsed and died of heart failure. Although a court heard that Zantzinger's actions led to the death, he received a mere six-months for manslaughter.
The sentence was handed down at the crescendo of the Civil Rights movement, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech in nearby Washington DC. The young Bob Dylan sang at the March on Washington. Reading about the Zantzinger case in the newspaper afterwards, he seized on it as a paradigm of racial injustice - for Carroll was a black woman, abused by a white man.
When I came to write Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan in 2000, I decided to try and speak to Zantzinger. Although Dylan's song had made him almost a character of legend, a storybook villain, I knew Zantzinger was a real person. Was he still alive? I found him still living in Maryland, listed in the phone book. I rang the number. As soon as I introduced myself, Zantzinger started ranting and raving about Dylan, "the son of bitch", saying he should have sued the singer for defamation. When I tried to question the farmer more closely, he slammed down the phone.
I quoted Zantzinger's few angry words in my book, which was a bestseller in 2001, and when Zantzinger died last year I noticed that newspaper obituary writers from around the world - for Dylan had made Zantzinger infamous - quoted the few words the farmer said to me. It seems his comments were unique. I remembered then that I'd taped him, and still had the tape.
That little micro-tape has become the kernel of a remarkable 30-minute radio documentary to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 am on Friday 14 May. Producer Sara Parker and I went to Maryland to make the programme,The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, which I present, uncovering a surprising amount of new information about this case. Most interestingly we found witnesses from the ball where Carroll was attacked, original contemporaneous court notes from the trial and, in the office of the son of one of the original prosecutors, we found William Zantzinger's cane, broken into pieces, not by the blow against Hattie, but because the cane was snapped and thrown away afterwards to hide the evidence. Holding the fragments of this legendary article I felt like I was handling John Dillinger's pistol.
Dylan's admirers (I don't say 'fans', for as Dylan reminds us fan is short for fanatic) may be surprised to learn that while Zantzinger himself was furious about the song, which he claimed defamed him, and does include a key factual error, the Carroll family were not pleased about the ballad either. At least one of Hattie's kids takes the view that Dylan exploited their story, helping make himself rich, while some of Hattie's grandkids couldn't pay their way through college.
Apart from Down the Highway, Howard Sounes is the author of a number of non-fiction books including a forthcoming major biography of Sir Paul McCartney, Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney.