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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, January 12, 2009


Just back from a few days in London, where I was one of the speakers at a big 3-day shabang called The France Show at Earls Court (the first time I'd been there since going to see Bob Dylan's 1981 concerts). Travelling there was harder than you might think. Because of the snow and ice, I set off from home at 7.15am and made halfspeed progress on the normally-90-minute journey to Toulouse airport. It was closed because of the snow - the first time they'd had any for 18 years - but while some flights had been cancelled, ours hadn't.

These two facts did not seem to compute. But EasyJet, to their credit, didn't wash their hands of us. After a couple of hours they produced coaches to drive us to Bordeaux airport and fly us from there instead. The coach took a little over three hours. Two more hours in that airport, and then the 75-minute flight to Gatwick. At least we got there the same day.

I stayed three nights, felt thankful I didn't have to live there, and flew home last night. The drive home was in thick fog - until about 300 yards from my door, when it suddenly cleared... but hung above us at the height of the car roof, so that the road ahead looked like a spooky tunnel from a sci-fi world.

Today is bright, cold and crisp, with a warm sun shining on the fields around us and on the shining, snowy Pyrenees beyond.

I came back to this news (courtesy of The Times' obituary, rather than courtesy of The New York Times, to whose very inferior version I was also alerted):

THE TIMES (London), 12 Jan 09 , international edn p 43
William Zantzinger: Tobacco farmer who inspired a song by Bob Dylan

“William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/ With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/”. When a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, after a powerful harmonica intro, launched into a new song, 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', on the popular Steve Allen show on American TV in February 1964, he sent a chill around a large segment of the nation, and eventually much of the world.

William “Billy” Zantzinger — Dylan dropped the “t” from the surname, perhaps deliberately in case of libel — was a wealthy, 24-year-old Maryland tobacco farmer of aristocratic and political stock. “Poor” Hattie Carroll was a barmaid and a mother of 11 whom a drunken Zantzinger struck down because she was slow to serve him a drink at what Dylan called “a Baltimore hotel society gathering” on February 9, 1963. The incident — a member of the gentry striking a maid — was not that unusual in the Maryland of the time, and Zantzinger’s arrest merited only a few lines in US East Coast newspapers.

But Zantzinger was white, Carroll a black descendant of slaves, and the civil rights movement was on the boil. Dylan’s song, included on his breakthrough The Times They Are A-Changin’ album, became something of a civil rights anthem, a metaphor for racial and class inequality in the US, as did the album’s title track. Scorning the judge’s decision to give Zantzinger a mere six-month sentence, Dylan concluded the song: “Bury the rag deep in your face/ For now’s the time for your tears.” He used the word “lonesome” in the title because none of the elegant guests had come to Carroll’s aid.

Charged first with murder, this was later reduced to manslaughter after it was concluded that Carroll had died from a brain haemorrhage caused by emotional, rather than physical, trauma. Zantzinger had been sentenced to six months and $625 in fines on August 28, 1963. By chance, that was the day of the march on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr made his “I have a dream” speech, a breakthrough in the civil rights movement, although its historic importance took time to sink in.

The start of Zantzinger’s jail term was delayed for several weeks to allow him to harvest his tobacco crop, an example of Maryland corruption and cronyism that prompted Dylan to write the song in a Manhattan café, record it in October and perform it nationwide on the Steve Allen show, one of his earliest TV appearances. Zantzinger’s white social circle believed that the verdict was fair, saying Hattie Carroll had been in precarious health and that Zantzinger’s cane, which in fact was a toy, may not have been what killed her.

The judges were said to have stuck to the six months’ sentence to ensure that the convict could serve his time in a county, rather than a state, prison where he might have faced abuse at the hands of majority black prisoners.

William Devereux Zantzinger, son of a former Maryland state politician, was born in the pillared, 18th century mansion of the family’s 630-acre tobacco farm at West Hatton, in Charles County, southern Maryland, in 1939. Further education was considered unnecessary as he grew up working on the farm, alongside both white and black workers, a fact which led friends to insist, after the Carroll incident, that he was not a racist, but had been out of his mind through alcohol. On the farm estate he enjoyed hunting — especially fox-hunting — in his spare time and was said to have drunk with both blacks and whites in local bars. After his release from prison in 1964, shortly after Dylan had poured scorn on him in front of the nation on TV, Zantzinger went back to the family farm, where his first wife, Jane, their children and his parents still lived.

His name, and shame, appeared forgotten outside his social circle until, having sold the farm, he went into what he termed “real estate”, renting ramshackle dwellings to poor black workers in a place called Patuxent Woods. In 1986 after he neglected to pay tax on his income, Charles County confiscated all the properties, but Zantzinger reckoned the poor inhabitants would not be aware of that. He continued to charge them rent on homes he did not own.

Not content with that, when some failed to pay up in time, he took them to court and, possibly having greased the palms of county bureaucrats, actually won. It was several years later, in 1991, before his scam was rumbled. He was arrested on fraud charges, fined $62,000 and ordered to do 2,400 hours of community service. Even then, a few of his black “tenants” stood up for him, saying they would not have had anywhere to live but for his help, since many of them had no jobs, credit or cash for deposits.

Journalists and Dylanologists tried to look up Zantzinger for most of his life, but he generally gave them the slip. One Dylan biographer, Howard Sounes, did, however, get a couple of comments from him in 2001. Dylan “is a no-account son of a bitch,” Zantzinger was quoted as saying. “I should have sued him and put him in jail. \ a total lie.” Even some Dylan fans believe there is a degree of truth in the criticism of the song, saying that it was an artwork, bending the individual facts partly for the sake of poetry, partly to give universality to the civil rights struggle of the time.

“Dylan’s concern was not the facts themselves but how they might fit with his preconceived notions of injustice and corruption,” wrote Dylanologist Clinton Heylin in Behind the Shades. “That the song itself is a masterpiece of drama and wordplay does not excuse Dylan’s distortions, and, 36 years on, he continues to misrepresent poor William Zantzinger in concert.”

He is survived by his second wife, Suzanne, and three children from his first marriage.

William Devereux Zantzinger, tobacco farmer, was born February 7, 1939. He died on January 3, 2009, aged 69.

The virtue of the New York Times Arts Beat blog report, however, is that it provides a link to its original news report of the trial back in 1963. How can anyone can read that and then feel that Dylan distorted the story inexcusably?

And here is the YouTube reproduction of that Steve Allen Show performance:

And how can anyone watch that and not be moved by both story and artistry together? He was so young and so unbefuddled. . . and he wanted to communicate to everyone.


Anonymous Steven Hart said...

I've always thought Dylan's Rolling Thunder era performances of "Hattie Carroll" were the best arrangement of that song. It was amusing to read Sam Shepard's "Rolling Thunder Logbook" and see him refer to the song as "Williams and Zinger," making it sound like some kind of herbal stimulant tea.

7:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised by you. Take the train, nothing is more fun than the TGV; no airports, no squeezing in. The only problem with the train is the awful food served on them, but then I bet it ain't no good on the Easy Jet either.


10:55 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Steven
Greetings. Better than on the original album?

Yes, "Williams and Zinger killed poor Hattie Carroll": those infamous outlaws of the Old West.

Dear R.R.
I'm sure you're right. I much prefer trains and if I had a private income would travel everywhere on land by train and everywhere between continents by ship; but on this trip I was (a) time-constrained, as all too often (b) cost-constrained, as ever and (c) travelling with one of the organisers of the event, and he devised our itinerary.

4:58 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

nobody mentions the 10 /11 children that Zantzinger left
motherless, apart from Dylan. What happened to them?

8:23 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

"Hattie's family suffered so, her children, after she died," said Rev. Johnson. "They don't go to this church anymore. Four of them, I think, became Muslims. One daughter ended up in a mental institution. But whatever you cause by word and by deed, it's all comin' back to you."

11:15 pm  

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