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Hattie Carroll: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Dylan first recorded Hattie Carroll on October 23, 1963, as part of the New York sessions for his third album The Times They Are A-Changin', giving it a live debut at Carnegie Hall just three days later.
The album was released in January 1964, complete with a take of Hattie Carroll which Dylanologist Christopher Ricks calls “a perfect song, perfectly rendered, once and for all”. Other songwriters seemed to agree, with Judy Collins rapidly nabbing the song for her own 1964 Town Hall concert, and Phil Ochs using a Broadside essay to praise Dylan's skill.
“I believe this song could add a new dimension to topical songs that has been missing too often in the past,” Ochs wrote. “I listened to Bob's third record with him before it was released, and the song that moved him most was Hattie Carroll. The use of poetry is paramount to his effective narration and one of his most important techniques is that he always avoids the obvious.” (29)

Hattie Carroll is the work of a superb craftsman who's already leaving his rivals far behind

It's that collision between the news reporter and the poet that makes Dylan's task so tricky in writing of such a recent case. We've already seen that the song may not have stood up to the cold scrutiny of the libel courts - which make no distinction between a tale set to music and one set in type - but the song remains an absolute triumph when judged as work of art. It's the work of a superb craftsman who's already starting to leave his contemporary rivals far behind.
Just glancing through the lyrics now, the lines which stand out are:

“With a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger”

“Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres”

“And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level”

“Stared at the person who killed for no reason”.

What better way to convey, so quickly and elegantly, the privilege and arrogance which Zantzinger represented that night, the opposite ends of the social spectrum which he and Carroll occupied, the horror with which the rest of us regard such thoughtless violence?
Then there's the recurring three lines which Dylan adds to the end of every verse, culminating in this final variation:

“You who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face,
For now is the time for your tears.” (27)

Each time he denies us permission to cry earlier in the song, Dylan is telling us to wait, because there's worse to come. It's not Carroll's death that's the greatest outrage here - so don't cry yet. It's not Zantzinger's casual attitude to the crime either - not yet, not yet - and nor is it Carroll's lowly duties. For Dylan, the greatest outrage is the fact that Zantzinger was allowed to get away with it, and it's only when we've drunk in that final abomination that he's prepared to allow us any release. Few other songwriters would have had the wit to even attempt that, let alone the restraint to pull it off so effectively.

Perhaps most striking of all, as Sounes points out, is the fact that Dylan never feels it necessary to spell out that Zantzinger was white and Carroll was black. In the troubled racial atmosphere of 1963 America, he knew he could rely on listeners to automatically fill in that information for themselves. In that year alone, Alabama police chief Bull Connor had fire-hosed black demonstrators, Medgar Evers had been killed by a white sniper and a Klan bomb had slaughtered four black children in a Birmingham church. Of course an arrogant rich man would be white. Of course the servant who emptied the ashtrays his farm filled would be black. What need was there to say so?
Dylan himself evidently realised he had something a bit special in Hattie Carroll, because that's the song he chose to sing when The Steve Allen Show gave him his first national television appearance in February 1964. Perched on a stool next to Allen for a brief interview, Dylan looks nervous and fidgety. Asked about the song's background, he tells Allen it's a true story from the newspaper, but adds “I changed the reporter's point of view. I used it for something that I wanted to say”.
He regains his composure only when he's allowed to sing Hattie Carroll instead of talking about it. “He duly delivered such a compelling performance that viewers couldn't help but be convinced of the singer's civil rights credentials,” says Heylin.
There's some obvious cynicism about Dylan's motives in the way Heylin chooses to phrase that, and the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs makes a similar point in his 1976 essay about the singer for The Village Voice. “Dylan merely used Civil Rights and the rest of the Movement to advance himself in the first place,” Bangs writes. “Which was actually not only kosher, but a fair deal, because the exchange amounted to symbiotic exploitation - the Movement got some potent anthems, Dylan got to be a figurehead and, even if he was using his constituency, art is more important than politics in the long run anyway.” (30)
That's Dylan's trump card. Whenever he's taken to task for romanticising a killer in one of his other murder ballads - Joey for example - Dylan counters that he's merely working in the tradition of old outlaw ballads, which glorify their equally vicious subjects in a similarly sentimental way. Perhaps he's just got his eyes fixed further into the future than the rest of us, looking to how the song will fare not in a few weeks' time, but in a few decades' time, when it can function as legend alone.
Every future generation will take it as axiomatic that William Zantzinger really was charged with first-degree murder, and they'll do that because a great work of art tells them so. The small lies which Hattie Carroll tells in service of its core truth will be forgotten, and in the end the song's own verdict is the only one that's going to matter.

Zantzinger was released from jail about a month after Dylan appeared on Steve Allen, but his notoriety showed no sign of going away. There were letters in the Afro sarcastically drawing attention to the light sentence he'd received and a Broadside editorial coupling Carroll's death to the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. “The list of the murdered and slain grows long,” Broadside mused as it surveyed the horizon in July 1964. “And the victims range from a humble hotel maid to the President of the United States.”
In October 1964, the Afro led an inside page with news that the Zantzingers were planning a fund-raiser for Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential candidate, who'd opposed Kennedy's civil rights legislation. Despite Jane's protests that her husband had nothing to do with the event, this story was headlined: “Killer of Hotel Barmaid Raising Funds for Goldwater”. Every time Zantzinger's name appeared in the papers from that day onward, this was how he'd be described. (31)