Wednesday, April 4, 2012 / 11:01 am

Injustice’s Jukebox: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” by Bob Dylan

Of Zimmerman and Zanzinger.

by Jim Washburn

Hattie Carroll
Killed by a white man.

Bob Dylan songs have a way of coming back around. Hark to his 1974 tour with the Band. Watergate was simmering that season, when Nixon and his henchmen were caught ensnared in one lie after another. And on recordings from that tour, you nightly hear the audience ripple with recognition, not to mention Ripple wine, during “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” when Dylan gets to the line, “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace later that year, going overnight from “the most powerful man in the world” to a pathetic figure wandering the foggy beach of San Clemente in his black wingtips. Meanwhile Ol’ Bob just kept rolling along.

“It’s Alright Ma” resonated at the time because it was a moment of overdue comeuppance. Nixon had misused government to punish his enemies; to spy on any vaguely liberal, anti-war, student-based or civil rights organization; to illegally expand the Vietnam War when the rest of us wanted us the hell out, and sundry slimy things. One of his Justice Department priorities was to get John Lennon deported from the country, because of all that peace/love jazz. And you know that Bob Dylan’s FBI file must have been among the ones he perused when awake nights in the White House. Dylan had been on the authoritarian right’s radar since the early 1960s, when FBI agents had marked him for interest after his name appeared in a folk magazine article by Phil Ochs, the agents, you see, being busy at the time compiling a file on Ochs.

In the ’70s, there would have been new entries in Dylan’s file, since he’d vocally supported Lennon’s effort to stay in the US, and, having largely moved past “protest music” years before, he’d recently dipped back in to sing, “Lordy, Lord, they shot George Jackson down, Lordy, Lord they laid him in the ground,” mourning the slaying of Black Panther George Jackson by guards at San Quentin.

(I should perhaps note here that Jackson—of whom Dylan had sung that prison guards “were frightened of his power, they were frightened of his love”—may have been an effective writer, but he was not someone you’d take home to mom. The guards didn’t just shoot him because they were bored: In prison for armed robbery and recently charged with the murder of a guard, Jackson had a gun snuck into the prison and led an escape attempt in which four more guards and two inmates were murdered (another three guards were shot and stabbed, but survived their wounds), their bodies piled like cordwood in Jackson’s cell. Jackson was no more a hero than was thuggish mob boss Joey Gallo, who was lionized in a later Dylan song, which I suspect was one of those things Dylan periodically did to shake people off his ass, since he didn’t care for being “the voice of a generation” and perhaps surmised that if he wrote songs making heroes of people who weren’t heroes maybe fans would finally get the point that he was no hero, either, but I’m just guessing.) 

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That was 40-odd years ago. The Dylan song that keeps coming back to me these past weeks is his 1963 “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It’s one of his finest songs ever, and is from his topical period, a story pulled straight from the news. You can read more about it here, but in brief, he’s singing about an entitled young white Southerner who killed a 51-year-old black waitress with a blow of his cane. She was the fourth person he’d struck that night, all of them black, and when his cane landed on Carroll’s head, he was shouting “Nigger!” and “You black son of a bitch” at her, all because she wasn’t quick enough bringing his bourbon, and because she was black. 

It’s a beautiful, sad tune, with a lyric as serious as death but filled with poetic playfulness, where Dylan worked internal rhymes into one line, along with a biblical reference: “Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane.” He sings of William Zanzinger’s offhanded act of violence, and the difference between his callow life and the mother of ten’s hard-working one, and of the workings of the legal process. Each verse ended with the caution, “Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.”

Well, each verse except the last, when he sings, “Now’s the time for your tears,” because Zanzinger’s sentence only earned him a six-month sentence. In 1963 Maryland, you had best be prompt with the bourbon, and white.

As injustices go, it was pretty stark. Carroll’s family had to live with their loss, while Zanzinger was able to go on being an unrepentant asshole his entire life, growing tobacco on his plantation and, in the 1990s, making the news again for being a slumlord. Dylan’s song has served as a reminder for decades of how corrosive injustice is for a society and for the human soul.

And if it seems particularly poignant now, it isn’t because, as with “It’s Alright Ma,” there’s a sense of the karmic wheel turning. Rather, it’s with sad realization that a particular wheel has been spinning in nearly the same rut it was in a half-century ago, and it’s the whole United States that must have to stand naked.

Lots of folks like to think America has moved past racism, arguing, “We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!” It’s a heck of a milestone, I’ll grant you that, but it is no more the death knell of racism than it was when Captain Kirk kissed Ensign Uhura back in 1968. Consider, for one thing, that a third of our countrymen, almost none of whom regard themselves as racist, cannot for the life of them accept the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House. They spout, “He’s not an American. He’s Kenyan. He’s a Muslim. He has an anti-colonial mindset,” and similar twists of logic, all because it isn’t polite to shout, “Look, a Nigger!” anymore.

We may never know exactly what happened the night of Feb. 26 when Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, but what is obvious is that there are still clear advantages to not being black in America. Had an unarmed white kid been shot by a black man who was following him, you can be certain that black man would have been investigated until he was shitting Skittles.

That’s what Donald Rumsfeld would have called a known known. The rest seems open to interpretation. Some say Zimmerman (which was Bob Dylan’s real last name, oddly enough) looks dainty fresh in the police video; others see a gash in his head. Some people are certain they hear him say “fucking coon” on his 911 call; others hear something else: “Lovely moon?” There’s disagreement over whether it was Martin or Zimmerman who was pleading for help in the background of neighbors’ 911 calls.

But even if things played out exactly as Zimmerman claims, it still comes down to race. A black kid carrying candy and an iced tea looked more suspicious to Zimmerman than a white kid might; and Martin might have felt threatened enough by the large, angry white guy stalking him that he had to confront him. Doubtful, but possible, and still a result of the gulf that exists between black and white.

However justice eventually comes down in this case, now’s the time for your tears.

Trayvon Martin
Killed by another white man. What's wrong with black people?
Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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