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Hattie Carroll: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Meanwhile, the song was still in robust health, with new cover versions trickling out from Martin Carthy, Julie Felix, Steve Howe, Michael Rose and Christy Moore. In 2006, Billy Bragg took Dylan's Hattie Carroll tune and rewrote the lyrics as a tribute to Rachel Corrie, the American girl killed by Israeli bulldozers while protesting for Palestinian rights three years earlier. That's the sign of a song that's still very much alive, and still earning its keep in the world.
Dylan himself continues to play it every year in concert. Alex Ross, The New Yorker's music critic, was mightily impressed by the song's treatment at a 1990s Dylan gig in Portland, Maine. “It was the best performance that I heard him give,” Ross writes. “He turned the accompaniment into a steady, slow, acoustic waltz, and he played a lullaby-like solo at the centre. You were reminded that the ‘hotel society gathering’ was a Spinsters' Ball, whose dance went on before, during and after the fatal attack on Hattie Carroll. It was an eerie twist on the meaning of the song, and not a sentimental one.”
Through all this, Zantzinger continued to find some unlikely defenders. Mother Jones interviewed former Maryland housing activist Candice Quinn Kelly for its November 2004 issue, and found her in forgiving mood. “I was on the other side from Zantzinger in the Patuxent Woods situation,” she told MJ's Ian Frazier. “In fact, it was our organisation that uncovered his fraud in the first place. Maybe I've mellowed or sold-out, but I don't see things as clear-cut as I did then.”
“Billy Zantzinger provides housing to marginal folks nobody's going to give a lease to, because they don't have a job or a rent deposit or a bank account or whatever. I learned that you can offer people tons of help and they still can't get out of poverty. Billy rents to these people anyway. Since Patuxent Woods, I've met him and talked to him a couple of times, and I feel strange saying this, but Billy Zantzinger is really a very nice man.” (36)

Through all this, Zantzinger has continued to find himself some unlikely defenders

It's testimony like this that makes it so infuriatingly hard to dismiss Zantzinger as the pantomime villain most of us imagine when we first hear Dylan's song. If Hattie Carroll had ever been tested in the libel courts, Zantzinger may well have won his case. That said, his behaviour at the Spinsters' Ball remains utterly indefensible, and we should never forget that it's Carroll who was the real victim of this whole saga. If it was left to Dylan's song to give her the justice which the courts failed to provide, then shouldn't we be thanking him for that?
We should certainly thank him for a great song, and its essential message - rich bully behaves appallingly, innocent victim dies, rich bully escapes lightly - is a fair summary of Zantzinger's crime. The trouble is that Dylan's always seemed to want it both ways with this song. On the one hand, he's happy to take the extra frisson which the song gains when he reminds audiences that it's a true story, but on the other he seems to deny any responsibility for getting the facts of that story right.
Some people reply that William Zantzinger was clearly an asshole anyway, so why worry about it? The trouble with that argument is that any legal system protecting people from having lies written (or sung) about them in public loses much of its moral force if you add the caveat “...unless me and my friends decide you're an asshole”. If you and I think we're entitled to such protection, then we have to accept that William Zantzinger should get it too. As a poster called Jen put it on the Mudcat boards: “Maybe if Dylan wrote a somewhat exaggerated song about you, the mob would be on your ass too.”
Dylan himself would say I'm missing the point. Writing in Chronicles about his early days on the New York folk circuit, he says:

“Songs about real events were always topical. You could sometimes find some kind of point of view in it, though, and take it for what it was worth, and the writer doesn't have to be accurate, could tell you anything and you're going to believe it.
    “Billy Gashade, the man who presumably wrote the Jesse James ballad, makes you believe that Jesse robbed from the rich and gave to the poor and was shot down by 'a dirty little coward'. In the song, Jesse robs banks, gives money to the destitute and, in the end, is betrayed by a friend. By all accounts, though James was a bloodthirsty killer who was anything but the Robin Hood sung about in the song. But Billy Gashade has the last word and he spins it around.” (33)

In other words, “print the legend”. And perhaps that's fair enough: after all, anyone who looks to songwriters as a 100% reliable source of information probably deserves all they get. Certainly, Dylan's never made any attempt to water-down the lyrics on stage. The DVD edition of DA Pennebaker's film Don't Look Back has footage of two Hattie Carroll performances from 1965 - not long after Dylan's fearful letter to Baltimore's police - and both times he sings his original lyrics in full. As recently as 2004, he asked a journalist, “Who wouldn't be offended by some guy beating an old woman to death and just getting a slap on the wrist?” Perhaps, by now, that's once again what he believes really happened. (42)
Carroll herself has been gone for 47 years now, Zantzinger died in January 2009, Dylan's 68 years old himself, and pretty soon all three will have moved beyond living memory. Stagger Lee and the other old murder ballads must have gone through a similar process, as anyone with direct knowledge of the crime or its participants died out and the legend that song preserved took over from cold, hard fact. There's no doubt that Hattie Carroll is a good enough song to survive into the next century and beyond, and by then it'll be only nerds like me who have any interest in digging back through the history screens to check its veracity.
As the Afro reminded its readers in July 1963, Carroll's case can serve as a protest against almost any injustice, be its roots in money, race or social standing - and the fact that her song is so easy to play makes it perfect for aspiring young musicians everywhere. Interviewed by Mojo in June this year, the songwriter Bill Fay said: “Just before I started writing, in 1964, I started playing the guitar to myself by practising The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. [...] It's five chords. Even in 1964, I knew four of them.” (43)
That approach still holds good today, as a quick trawl of YouTube confirms. Tap the words “Hattie Carroll” in there, and the first two pages alone will produce amateur performances from young men called Jimski123, Marcoacca, JeffreyC2, Teledude1972, Willieturnip, Zinrgy, Atticbadger, Iralightman and Rodhak1. The professionals are still busy too, with recent cover versions emerging from Mason Jennings, Rusty Willoughby, Mike Leslie, Michael Reis and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Somewhere near you, a busker is playing it right now.

Blood Ties: Hattie Carroll on NBC's Homicide

We've already seen how David Simon, who went on to create The Wire, interviewed Zantzinger while shadowing Baltimore's murder police for his 1991 book Homicide. That book inspired the NBC cop show Homicide: Life on the Street, which is where Simon began his TV career. He continued writing occasional episodes for the show right through its seven-season run.
   In October 1997, he teamed with Anya Epstein to write an opening trilogy for the series' sixth season. Blood Ties, as the story was called, used modern-day Baltimore to ask how an equivalent of the Hattie Carroll case might play out today.
    The story starts with Al Giardello, the Homicide Squad's lieutenant, attending a formal dinner at Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel to honour his friend Felix Wilson. Felix, who's played by James Earl Jones to give him a little extra gravitas, is a rich black businessman and philanthropist in Baltimore.
    As the dinner continues, a young Haitian called Melia Brierre is found beaten to death in the men's bathroom, and the Wilsons identify her as one of the family's domestic servants. White cops in the homicide division accuse Giardello and Detective Frank Pembleton - both of whom are black - of going easy on the Wilsons because of their contribution to the city's black community.
    In episode one of the trilogy, Felix canters through the Hattie Carroll story for Pembleton's (and the viewers') benefit. His version comes direct from the Dylan song, although he does give Zantzinger's name correctly and squeeze in a mention of Carroll's heart condition. “From poor Hattie Carroll to our sweet Melia,” he says, adding that he and Regina had attended “the vigil in front

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