“This is a true story. This is taken out of the newspapers.”
- Bob Dylan, introducing Hattie Carroll at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1965.
“The song was a lie. Just a damned lie.”
- William Zantzinger, quoted in The New Yorker, January 26, 2009.
On August 28, 1963, Dr Martin Luther King led 250,000 civil rights marchers to Washington in what The New York Times called “the greatest assembly for the redress of grievances that this capital has ever seen”. King delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, President Kennedy praised the marchers' dignity, and a young folk singer called Bob Dylan sang two of his own songs for the crowd.
Like every newspaper in America, Baltimore's Afro American led on the march. Building the front page round a close-up of a young black marcher with the US flag artfully reflected in his sunglasses, it chose the banner headline “Cry for Freedom”. Beneath this were other headlines spotlighting various aspects of the event: “241,000 join in fervent appeal to the Congress”; “March praised by press”; “JFK vows push for more jobs”. Only one unconnected story made it above the fold that day, and its headline read: “Cane-killer gets off with six months”.
The killer in question was William Zantzinger, a prosperous Baltimore tobacco farmer, who had got very drunk at a society dance there six months earlier. He'd called one of the barmaids a “black bitch” and then hit her with his cane when she asked him to wait for a moment while she finished serving another customer. The barmaid, Hattie Carroll, had died a few hours later from a brain haemorrhage brought on by Zantzinger's assault, he'd been convicted of manslaughter, and his sentence happened to be announced on the day of the march.
Many thought Zantzinger's thuggish behaviour at the dance should have brought a murder conviction, and believed it was only his position in Baltimore's rich, white hierarchy which got him off so lightly. Right from the start, Carroll's death had been seen to symbolise every injustice the Washington marchers wanted to overturn. “The case was drawn in shades of black and white,” the Afro remarked, “and not only because of the racial identification of the victim and her accused slayer. It seemed to place the rich against the poor, the haves against the have-nots.” (1)
Back in New York, the Times also reported Zantzinger's sentence. The paper later claimed it was this story - soberly headlined “Farmer sentenced in barmaid's death” - which inspired Dylan to write his own account of the killing.
He'd already penned two songs about racist white-on-black murders in the past 18 months - The Death of Emmett Till and Only a Pawn in their Game - and included one of these in his short Washington set. Pawn was about the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who'd been gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963. Dylan portrayed the killer as poor white trash, sucked into committing a racist murder by the paranoia cynical white politicians had fed him. He was less to be hated than pitied, Dylan suggested, and that made the song a gutsy choice for the Washington rally.
Evers' death was still a raw memory when Dylan stepped up to the Lincoln Memorial's forest of podium mikes to sing, and his widow was there as one of the rally's key speakers. And yet here was a white singer, telling an 80% black audience that they should look on Evers' killer with a degree of sympathy. Even with this challenging message, though, the song went down well, winning Dylan applause and cheers as he slipped back into the crowd.
As with many of Dylan's early songs, Pawn's words and music were first published in Broadside, a tiny Greenwich Village magazine whose mimeographed pages were filled with radical songs. Broadside wanted songs which “mirrored an America becoming ever more deeply involved with the great national struggles of war or peace, civil rights and [...] the plight of the unemployed and poor.” Songs like these, the editors added, should “reflect an America of still increasing violence and death, inflicted especially on the Negro people and their white allies”. (2)
In January 1962, when Broadside made its debut, that meant contemporary American folk music and, for a while, Dylan was very happy to follow Broadside's agenda. In the magazine's first 18 months alone, he gave them 15 new songs, including Masters of War, Talking John Birch Society Blues and Blowing in the Wind.
The critic Paul Nelson, who had always been sceptical about glib protest songs, heard Dylan play Pawn for a small group of friends in the summer of 1963, and took this opportunity to challenge the singer about it. “These songs were like fish in the barrel stuff,” Nelson later wrote. “It's like patting-yourself-on-the-back music. [...] Dylan was going ‘No, no, this is really where it's at’. But he also made the point that the easiest way to get published if you wrote your own songs was to write topical songs, ‘cause Broadside wouldn't publish you if you didn't.” (3)
Dylan also used the Broadside songs to impress Suze Rotolo, then his girlfriend. “I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her ‘Is this right?’,” he told the journalist Robert Shelton in 1966. “I knew her mother and father were associated with unions, and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked the songs out with her” Eve MacKenzie, a friend of the couple, later added: “Suze was very much with the cause [...] She influenced Bobby considerably that way.” (4)
It's worth remembering that the Bob Dylan of August 1963 was not the global superstar we know today. He was then just 22 years old, only two albums into his career, and would have to wait another 20 months for his first chart hit. The first album had sold poorly enough for Columbia to threaten they'd drop him, and the second - already on the shelves for three months - was only now beginning to shift.
Dylan's career could have gone either way at that point, and Broadside gave him a useful platform to show off his skills, establish his ownership of each new song and polish up his radical credentials. I don't doubt there was a element of genuine outrage in his civil rights songs - no intelligent young artist could fail to be moved by such turbulent times - but there were also sound career reasons to keep those songs coming. In October 1963, he decided Hattie Carroll would be his next subject.
On Friday, February 8, 1963, the night she met her death, Carroll was working as a barmaid at Baltimore's Emerson Hotel. The 51-year-old grandmother had done occasional work at the hotel for the past six years, stepping in whenever they needed extra staff for a big function like that evening's Spinsters' Ball. It promised to be quite a night: a white tie charity affair, with 200 guests from Maryland's most prominent families invited and the prestigious Howard Lanin Orchestra providing the music.