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The Story Behind a Bob Dylan Classic

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Howard Sounes Howard Sounes | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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.

Related Links
The Lonesome Death Death of Hattie Carroll - the Radio 4 programme
Howard Sounes - the writer's own website


  • Comment number 1.

    Howard-My sister and I are anxiously awaiting the airing of your show. I was very impressed with the work you and Sara put in to it. Best wishes. Bruce Poole

  • Comment number 2.

    Really interesting programme. Would like to have heard what your interviewees thought of the song-did it impact on them at the time or just pass them by?

    Also Howard just one point where I feel I disagree; for a brief period Dylan's protest writing was actually quite prolific-indeed the 2nd and third albums have quite a number of 'protest songs' and a few other notable songs he wrote at the time- (let me die in my footsteps-John Birch-Davey Moore to site but three) didn't make it on to albums until many years later.
    It has become somewhat fashionable to downplay Dylan's protest, but at that time they made up quite a high percentage of his output.

    Great programme though


  • Comment number 3.

    Another tidbit about Mr. Zantzinger--he, at one time, owned one-room shacks without electricity or water, which he rented to poor people for a few hundred dollars a month. He failed to pay the property taxes on those shacks, and lost them in a tax sale. He never told his residents, and continued to charge and collect rent, and evict people, all with no right.

  • Comment number 4.

    Really interesting programme, taught me how to spell Zantzinger for a start. This has always been one of my favourite Bob songs - he sounds angy about something important to him and his writing is really powerful all the way through. I'm certain that the song contributed to the eventual changes in US society.
    Fascinating to learn that William & wife went on to dance at '' a Blatimore Hotel Society Gathering '' and that she sounds as bad as he was. Congratulations on digging up such background and that the Carrolls felt let down by Bob getting so much out of the song, compared to them.
    Thanks for the programme

  • Comment number 5.

    This was a very disappointing programme. Sounes did a poor job of gathering evidence that would have been historically invaluable from the Zantzingers. Indeed it could be said that he inadvertently closed off more evidence than he collected. A professional journalist would have realized the sensitivity of the situation and called to the principal witness's house when he found him in the phone-book, or used an intermediary to get an interview. What we got was a short outburst of almost no value and one that has made a mass of hidden primary evidence forever inaccessible. Similarly Sounes failed to get an interview with the children who apparently saw risks involved. We do not know the William Z. story and someone else will have to go after it. Nor did Sounes give us an interview with Dylan to tell us what repercussions the song had on him – was there contact with Zantzinger etc.? Sounes’s self-congratulatory promo on the BBC site for his program is the only remarkable thing about it. Oh, and the blow from the cane was not the “tap” that Sounes claimed in his promo. Otherwise there no manslaughter, just a coincidence. This project needs to be revisited by someone who will get at the history before it is all beyond reach.


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