Like many people, I am sure, I read with much interest yesterday the obituary of William Zantzinger, whose infamy was immortalized in Bob Dylan’s classic song of 1963 “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Reading the obituary, it seems that Dylan took some balladic license with some of the facts of the case (including misspelling Zantzinger as Zanzinger) but he got the gist right, and if anything, Zantzinger’s real actions seem more reprehensible than as portrayed in Dylan’s song, drunkenly caning people at a party in Maryland, including Hattie Carroll, aged 51, a poor black maid with eleven kids (not ten, as in the song), inducing a stroke, from which she died, and for which Zantzinger received a six-month sentence for manslaughter.
If “the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is not Dylan’s best song—it would probably get my vote—it is certainly (IMHO) his greatest protest song, a genre that he would abandon, more or less, not that long after writing it. His later work, as great as it is, traded the directness of “Hattie Carroll” for a certain willful poetic obscurity, and in place of the keen sense of the interaction of the personal and the public in “Hattie Carroll”, offered instead a long series of brilliant songs on Dylan’s private woes and obsessions. And unlike some of his other protest songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Masters of War,” “Hattie Carroll” is descriptive, not prescriptive, just a ballad, telling a story.
“Hattie Carroll” came out about the same time as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which added the endlessly debated phrase “the banality of evil” to our language. Whatever else you want to say about William Zantzinger, he was no Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps he better illuminates how an evil social order is more built upon myriad acts of relatively banal crimes than great horrors, and how the system of racial and class oppression that is central to the events of Dylan’s song are less the product of calculated evil, than selfishness and greediness defended through a series of endless rationalizations.
And finally it is a song about the sadness and sorrow that is at the heart of all human history, the great men and deeds which are built upon the trough of meanness and pettiness, the unfairness, and the inequalities of every social order.
All of us, have from time to time, tried to “philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,” look at the public face of evil calmly and rationally, and try to understand and deal with it. At other times, all one can do, as the song finally recommends, “Bury the rag deep in your face, For now's the time for your tears.” When my brother died last year, suddenly and tragically, it is this song, above all others, that I found myself singing to myself, again and again. I’m not sure why. It certainly was a time for my tears. And by making sure that the crimes of one relatively unimportant unsung man would be sung about forever, Dylan has rendered us all a service. Those of us who spend our lives writing about history, the lives of others, need to study, to analyze, to put things in proportion. We also need to remember, from time to time, to bury our faces in our handkerchiefs, and let the tears flow, and flow, and flow.