In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, the story of the murder of a 51-year-old barmaid by the wealthy young tobacco farmer William Devereux ‘Billy’ Zantzinger, who eventually received a six month sentence for the killing. That sentence was handed down on the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dylan was one of the marchers. Returning home to New York, he sat in an all-night coffee shop on Seventh Avenue and wrote his song. Influenced, as Dylan observed in his autobiography, by Brecht and Weil, the song (which came out the following year in The Times They Are A Changin’ album) is an excoriating assault not just on racism, but on the collusion of the authorities, the law and liberal opinion:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Ah, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.
The year that Hattie Carroll was murdered was also the year black civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot dead by Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council (another event about which Dylan wrote a song); twice all-white juries refused to convict Beckwith. It was the year in which the Klu Klux Klan bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. It was the year in which whites rode round Cambridge, Maryland, in cars firing on blacks during the desegregation of the town.
Fifty years on, America is a very different place. It is not a ‘postracial’ society. But neither is it in the grip of Jim Crow racism as it was in 1963. Both the law and public opinion are in a very different place than they were half a century ago. And yet, when I heard of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I could not but help think of the Dylan song. The response of the media and of the Justice Department, and the public outrage at the failure to bring his killer to book, reveal how much America has transformed. The killing itself, the insouciance of Martin’s killer George Zimmerman, and the attitude of the local police, reveal the demons that still lie beneath. So here, in the week that marks the fiftieth anniversary of his first album, is Dylan playing ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ on the Steve Allen Show, the first time it was broadcast: