On August 28, 1963, a court in Hagerstown, Maryland, condemned William Zantzinger for manslaughter, after the death of Hattie Carroll, an African American barmaid employed at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore.
That very same day, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous I have a dream speech.
The facts surrounding the Hattie Carroll case are easily found online. In a nutshell: Zantzinger, a rich tobacco farm owner, was attending a party at the Emerson Hotel when, visibly drunk and molesting, he assaulted Hattie with both verbal and physical violence, directing racist comments to her and hitting her head with his cane. Hattie died a few days later because of a stroke, possibly provoked by the blow.
Zantzinger managed to get out of jail on bail almost instantly and the sentence that declared him guilty was of only six months.
Bob Dylan, quite close to the civil rights movements at that time, must have felt an odd connection between this unjust sentence, that minimized the act of violence of a rich, white man towards a poor, black woman, and the important event in Washington.
He took part in the march himself, together with Joan Baez and many other folk singers and celebrities. This event was forever sealed in history as one of the few turning points of the Sixties, when Western societies went through permanent changes.
Race, however, was still a problem: African American people were still disadvantaged and dudes like Zantzinger could still commit terrible crimes towards them without commensurate consequences.
Probably for these reasons, when Dylan read the news he decided to dedicate a classic folk ballad to poor Hattie Carroll, transforming a story ready to be forgotten into images indelibly present in our popular culture.
At that time, Dylan used to publish some of his songs on the legendary Broadside magazine, a Greenwich Village zine featuring many radical songs. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was no exception and that contributed to the popularity of the ballad (and of the case).
In his lyrics, Dylan tells the story in details, although he takes a few licenses and changes a few facts: from the spelling of Zantzinger to Hattie’s job, or the description of the actual sentence (which was never of first-degree murder).
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a song any songwriter should study. Its structure is neatly planned, with four verses, increasingly longer as details are added. The imagery is realistic and strong and at times we have the sensation of reading a newspaper rather than listening to a song. The irony in the last verse, where Dylan expresses how hypocrite the sentence sounds, is, in itself, a lesson in writing protest songs.
I love singing and playing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, trying not to mess up with the incredible number of words present in each verse (apparently even Joan Baez did mess them up once, during a concert).
Here is my version, recorded for the project Dylanopedia: