A report of the incident on which this song is based was published in The Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1963. It was not a big news story, but Bob Dylan apparently read something about it when he was returning home after attending the March On Washington protest on August 28, 1963 (which concluded with Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech).
Slightly amended extracts from Wikipedia:
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrollgives a generally factual account of the killing of 51-year-old barmaid Hattie Carroll by the wealthy young William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger, and his subsequent sentence to six months in jail. The actual incident took place February 9, 1963 at a ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. Zantzinger drunkenly assaulted Carroll and at least two others with his cane (a bellboy and a waitress). At about 1.30 a.m. on the morning of the 9th, he ordered a drink from barmaid Carroll and when she didn't bring it immediately, he cursed at her, to which Carroll replied: "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Zantzinger said: "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a nigger," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll was heard to remark: "I feel deathly ill; that man has upset me so" soon after, before collapsing and being taken to the hospital. After Carroll died the following morning, Zantzinger was charged with homicide. However, this was changed to manslaughter and assault after it was discovered that Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure, and that she had in fact probably died of a brain haemorrhage caused by the stress of Zantzinger's verbal and physical abuse, rather than the physical assault itself (the cane left no mark on her). On August 28, 1963 Zantzinger was convicted of assault and manslaughter and was sentenced to six months.
Dylan recorded his song on October 23, when the trial was still relatively fresh news, and incorporated it into his live repertoire immediately, before releasing the studio version on January 13, 1964. Despite the song's topical nature, Dylan continues to perform it in concert to this day. [Latest performance: May 17, 2008.] Footnote 1: In 2005, Zantzinger told Howard Sounes (quoted in Down the Highway, the Life of Bob Dylan), "It's actually had no effect upon my life", but is vitriolic in his scorn for Dylan, saying, "He's a no-account son of a bitch", claiming that the song is inaccurate. "He's just like a scum of a scum bag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail."
Footnote 2: In 1991, it became known that Zantzinger rented out properties which he no longer owned [they had been confiscated by the local municipal authorities because he had not paid his taxes]; and he even won court battles against tenants who did not pay their rent! The families who rented these properties were African American.
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
by Bob Dylan, 1964
Can you find discrepancies between the details of the song and the original newspaper account or the Wikipedia information? Do you think the differences matter?
Dylan still performs this song in concert. How could such a topical song still be of relevance more than forty years later?
How is the song structured? In other words, what is the focus of each stanza?
What contrasts can you find throughout the song between Hattie Carroll and William Zanzinger?
Why do you think Dylan does not specify that Hattie Carroll is black and Zanzinger is white?
What do you think is the effect of using the present tense in line 11? (And compare this with line 20.)
What is unusual about the expression “rich wealthy”, and why might Dylan use it?
In the second stanza, which details suggest why Zanzinger may have received a very lenient treatment?
In the second stanza, which details present Zanzinger as an unattractive character? How does the sound of the words add to this impression?
A difficult question: How would it feel different to say that Zanzinger ‘walked out on bail’ (which would be the usual prose syntax) rather than “on bail was out walking”? (Try to think what the expression ‘to be out walking’ might normally suggest.)
What could it suggest to say that Hattie Carroll “gave birth to” ten children, rather than simply ‘had’ or ‘was the mother of’?
What do you think is the effect of the very unusual triple identical rhyme in the third stanza? (An ‘identical rhyme’ is when a word is rhymed with itself. To do so in three successive lines is, to say the least, distinctive and original.)
What is meant literally by “on a whole other level”, and what is also implied?
What biblical reference may be suggested in line 27?
Here’s a real tough one: in what way is the stress ending of lines 27 and 28 different from the other lines of the song (except the chorus lines at the end of each stanza)? Clue: find out about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhyme. And if you work that out, can you say why the switch is especially appropriate and effective for these particular lines?
Still pretty tough: how is extra stress put on the word “Doomed” in line 29?
In what way is line 30 ungrammatical, and how could that be appropriate?
“In the courtroom of honor” is clearly meant ironically. Can you find several other examples of heavy irony in the final stanza?
In the final stanza, Hattie Carroll and William Zanzinger seem to ‘disappear’ (until Zanzinger’s name is given finally in line 44). Where are they both ‘hiding’, as it were, in line 40? And what do you think is the effect of not naming them here?
In recording this song for the album The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan gives just a small elongation or pause on the word ‘a’ in line 44. What effect does this have?
“For now’s the time for your tears”. Why now and not before?
Can you detect a final irony in Dylan’s choice of musical time for this song?