Singing the News:
How Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
Functions as Alternative Journalism

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2020, Volume 19, Issue 2


Theodore G. Petersen
Florida Institute of Technology

The August 29, 1963, issue of the Baltimore Sun included two stories about the Civil Rights Movement. The first was obviously a story deserving of the front page. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to the masses at the mall in Washington, D.C., and cemented his role as spokesman of the cause. The second was a brief on the last page of the first section, reporting on the fate of William Zantzinger who received six months in prison for his role in the death of Hattie Carroll.

King's speech and rally became iconic images in American history and part of the country's moral narrative. Zantzinger's story would have fallen from the public's consciousness were it not for a folksinger who was hungry for material and on a creative tear rarely paralleled in any field. That September, Bob Dylan added to his growing list of iconic protests songs with "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

Many news organizations reported Hattie Carroll's death, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and The Afro-American, an African American weekly newspaper in Baltimore. But William Zantzinger's name lives on in infamy not from coverage of the New York Times or the Baltimore Sun, but from Dylan's 1964 song. This paper compares the coverage of Carroll's death by the traditional media, by the black press, and by Dylan in song. I argue Dylan's song functions as a form of alternative journalism as it rejects what Lewes calls the mainstream press's "smokescreen of objectivity" (Lewes 386) and tries to express "the truth."


Carroll's "Lonesome Death"

From February 10, 1963, when the crime was first reported in the newspapers, until March 17, 1964, when Zantzinger was released, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and The Afro-American told and retold the story of Carroll's encounter with Zantzinger. According to the Post, Zantzinger had been drunk on the evening of February 8, 1963. He hit Carroll on the shoulder after calling her a racial slur and complaining that his drink was coming too slowly. She collapsed to the floor. He was arrested for assault that evening and released on $3,600 bail ("Socialite Tied to Barmaid Death").

The next morning, Carroll died of a brain hemorrhage. A warrant was issued for Zantzinger’s arrest on homicide charges. He surrendered on February 10, 1963, and was released the next day on $25,000 bail (“Caning Death Suspect Out on Bail”). On March 19, 1963, he was indicted on murder charges. The grand jury accused Zantzinger of "feloniously, wilfully and of deliberately meditated malice aforethought" killing Hattie Carroll ("Jury Indicts Zantzinger in Fatal Barmaid Caning").

At the request of the defense, the case was tried before a panel of three circuit judges. During the trial, the state medical examiner concluded that there was "a definite relationship between the assault and the onset of the symptoms" leading to Carroll's death (Goshko, "Zantzinger Witnesses Describe Attack"). Zantzinger claimed that he was so drunk he could not remember the events of that evening and had no recollection of hitting Carroll (Goshko, "Zantzinger Can't Recall Hitting Woman"). Dismissing the premeditation charge, the judges acquitted Zantzinger of the first-degree murder charge and second-degree murder charge, leaving only manslaughter and assault charges (Goshko, "Judges Weigh Their Decision on Zantzinger").

On June 27, 1963, the judges convicted Zantzinger of manslaughter and three counts of assault (Goshko, "Zantzinger Guilty of Manslaughter in Maid's Caning"). The caning was not enough to cause death, they concluded, but the combination of the verbal assault and physical blow caused the hemorrhage that led to Carroll's death ("Farmer Convicted in Barmaid's Death"). On August 28, 1963, Zantzinger received a six-month sentence and $625 fine. The sentence began on September 15, allowing him time to harvest his tobacco crops ("Farmer Sentenced in Barmaid's Death").

The political and cultural events surrounding Carroll's death were significant, specifically in the civil rights arena. Shortly after Carroll was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote his now-famous letter from jail. In May 1963, Eugene "Bull" Connor reacted violently toward student protesters in Birmingham by using police dogs and fire hoses. Medgar Evers was killed while Zantzinger was awaiting trial. The day Zantzinger was sentenced, Dylan joined the marchers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Before Zantzinger was released from jail, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the United States was slipping into a full-fledged conflict in Vietnam with about 16,000 troops committed by 1963 (Swarthmore College Peace Collection).


Alternative or Underground Journalism

The literature on underground or alternative journalism reveals three common characteristics. First, underground journalism is always in opposition to the mainstream media. Second, underground journalism rejects the concept of objectivity, both on a practical and philosophical level. Third, underground journalists use unconventional methods of presenting and distributing their message.

Elizabeth Nelson states that counterculture rejects the dominant or "straight" society and its culture (8). For Nelson Baker, the alternative press counters the official releases in the mainstream press, such as it did during the Northern Ireland peace process (378). James Lewes notes that the underground press fills the role the "mainstream" media avoids — that of covering the emerging counterculture (389) — while Robert Glessing explains that the underground press consists of "dissenters" whose goal is "without fail damning the establishment" (xii). In other words, the "overground" press does not speak to the problems of the counterculture that needs "its own communication medium" (Glessing 12).

Because the mainstream press "distorted or ignored" important racial issues, Julian Williams explains, blacks relied on newspapers from their own community such as the Mississippi Free Press (106), which was a desegregationist newspaper that dealt with many hardships. Williams states, "The segregationist power structure was determined to silence what was considered to be a radical voice for change" (106). Once traditional media outlets became more sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi Free Press was no longer countering traditional media, but competing with it to cover the same issues. Lacking the resources, the Mississippi Free Press could not compete and closed after twelve years (112). The identity of the underground press is dependent on its opposition to the mainstream.

Alternative journalism also rejects the ideal of objectivity. The underground press ignores "journalism's professional practices" because of its partisan political agendas (Baker 378). Most of the mainstream media commits themselves to the concept of objectivity, but the underground press recognizes that objectivity is an impossible achievement. Rather, they wear their biases on their sleeves. Bob Ostertag calls objectivity "the ideological rationale for the whole enterprise" of journalism (3). Prior to the consolidation of media ownership, the idea of objectivity was not something journalists attempted to achieve, but only came as a "selling point" for the idea that media conglomerates will not undermine democracy. Because the goal of social movement journalism was "to promote ideas, not profits," (Ostertag 3) the ideal of objectivity was unnecessary.

Moreover, the underground press presents its ideas in unconventional methods. The alternative media in Northern Ireland, for example, distributes their publications in non-traditional ways such as delivering them door-to-door or handing them out in pubs (Baker 379). According to Glessing, the writing in much underground press is "lurid, subjective and sometimes undecipherable" (6). These alternative newspapers remain interested in anything thatgoes against the establishment, which included ideas, methods, and style of journalism.

Renowned historian Robert Darnton argues that "every society develops its own ways of hunting and gathering information" and understanding these means of communication "can reveal a great deal about its understanding of its own experience" (2). To demonstrate this point, Darnton points to eighteenth-century France where songs were vehicles for circumventing government censorship. "In a society that remained largely illiterate,” Darnton writes, “they provided a powerful means of transmitting messages" (19). Scandalous novellas and songs were the main way to disseminate information the government might not want publicized. Songs were extremely effective because "in a society that remained largely illiterate, they provided a powerful means of transmitting messages" (Darnton 19). Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was a song that powerfully transmitted a message — a message clearly opposed to the one presented in traditional media.


The Coverage of Hattie Carroll's Death

This article examines the two versions of Hattie Carroll's death: the one that appeared in the press and the one Bob Dylan presented. First, a thematic analysis of the mainstream media's coverage of Carrol's death and Zantzinger's arrest, trial, sentencing, and release — as presented in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Baltimore Sun — reveals the focus of the press's coverage. Second, a lyrical analysis of Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" highlights Dylan's framing of the event. Five topics in the press's coverage of Carroll's death emerge: descriptions of the slaying and the trial, descriptions of the suspect and his family, the legal issue of causality, race and class, and descriptions of Zantzinger's sentencing.

The slaying and trial. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, journalists are to refrain from using the word "murder" or "murderer" until the suspect has been convicted or authorities say premeditation was obvious (116-117), so journalists were cautious describing the death. A United Press International article in the Washington Post referred to it as a "fatal caning" ("Caning Death"). An Associated Press article in the Washington Post called it a "caning death" ("Zantzinger Surrenders"). Another said that Carroll "was beaten with a cane" ("Zantzinger's Wife Faces New Charges"). Another referred to Zantzinger as "causing the death of Hattie Carroll" ("Zantzinger Ends Term of 6 Months") while still another wrote that Zantzinger "struck a barmaid who died" ("Mrs. Zantzinger Fined for Disorderly Conduct") as if the two events — the caning and the death — were coincidences.

The Baltimore Sun provided significantly more detailed coverage of the trial than the national papers. The first Baltimore Sun mention of Carroll's death came in the February 10, 1963, issue. The first Sun story about Carroll’s death retells the encounter between Zantzinger and another member of the wait staff, Ethel Hill: "The police said, she was struck across the buttocks with a cane of the carnival-prize kind. She attempted to leave the area, but was followed and whacked across the arm, thighs and buttocks several times" ("Caning Suspect, Wife Sought State-Wide in Death of Barmaid").1 The article accurately recounts Zantzinger's beating of Carroll by stating that he struck her across the shoulders.

Details of the crime show up in the Baltimore Sun stories about the grand jury hearing. One story appeared beneath an understated headline, "Zantzinger Is Held for Jury Action," but contained many of the lurid details from the hearing. Zantzinger reportedly called Carroll a "black b----" and hit her hard, said Shirley Burrell, a waitress at the hotel, "so hard I couldn't understand how she could stand up." This story reported the testimony from Dr. Charles S. Petty, who said Zantzinger's blow from the cane caused Carroll's death, but reported that he found no bruises on Carroll's body during the autopsy.

On June 20, 1963, Robert A. Erlandson's story filled several columns of description of the trial ("Zantzinger Cane Whacks Are Recalled"). The journalist provided details about Zantzinger's actions prior to striking Carroll. He allegedly struck her on the buttocks four or five times as she was walking away from him. "Each time he hit, he hit me harder and harder," she testified. Erlandson reported the events of the following day's testimony, much of which revolved around the question of causality: did Zantzinger's blow cause Hattie Carroll's death? (Erlandson, "Doctor Says Caning Led to Maid's Death").

Another story by Erlandson reported the events of the third day of the trial, featuring testimony by Zantzinger and his wife ("Zantzinger Tells of 'Fun' with Cane"). Zantzinger said that he was only playing with the cane, but he and his wife both said they did not remember any of the details of the night because they had been drinking so heavily. By the end of the trial, the Baltimore Sun appears to have tired of the Zantzinger trial, as it announced the conviction of manslaughter and assault on the last page of the June 28, 1963, issue, with a short report of the facts and the judge's comments ("Zantzinger Attorneys to Seek Retrial").

The suspect and his family. The media also reported Zantzinger's status in society. He was called "a young tobacco farmer and socialite" by an AP article in the Post ("Socialite Tied"). An AP article and a UPI article in the Post referred to him as "a Southern Maryland gentleman farmer" ("Zantzinger Surrenders"; "Caning Death"). Another AP article in the Post called him "a Charles County gentleman farmer" ("Zantzinger’s Wife"), which is understated and elevated language for a man accused of murder.

The mainstream press also emphasized Zantzinger's family relationships. The wire stories in the Washington Post on February 10, 11, and 12, and March 20, 1963, make reference to Zantzinger's father, Richard C. Zantzinger, who was a former member of the Maryland Planning Commission and a former Maryland State legislator. Goshko reported the appearance of the elder Zantzinger at his son's trial (Goshko, "Zantzinger Guilty of Manslaughter in Maid's Caning"). The first article in the Baltimore Sun mentions Zantzinger's father's status. Being a local paper, this story also mentions the background of both Zantzinger and Carroll, including church affiliations and education ("Caning Suspect, Wife Sought").

According to the press, Zantzinger apparently showed little remorse for his actions. In a Washington Post article, Andrew J. Glass quoted Zantzinger: "I didn't do anything to her...judging by what those [defense called] doctors testified she probably would have been dead the next morning anyway." Glass wrote, "Neither was he overly concerned by the prospect of going to jail Sunday, 'I'll just miss a lot of snow,' he said with a grin, 'and I'll be back in time for the spring harvest.'"

Causality. George J. Hiltner's story in the February 12, 1963, issue of the Baltimore Sun was one of the first to question the causal relationship between the caning and the death (34). Hiltner reported that during Zantzinger's bail hearing his attorney argued that Carroll "did in fact die as a result of a stroke induced by hypertension, a malady from which she was a chronic sufferer" (34).

Peter S. Diggins noted that the autopsy reported that Carroll "had a heart twice the normal size and had suffered a 'huge hemorrhage' within the brain" (Diggins). Dr. Charles Petty, the assistant medical examiner, said during the preliminary hearing, "There is a direct cause and effect relationship" linking the verbal and physical assault to Carroll's death (Diggins). Goshko quoted Petty during the trial that there was a "definite relationship between the assault and the onset of the symptoms" (Goshko, "Zantzinger Witness").

In their verdict, the judges decided that Carroll's medical condition called into question how much Zantzinger's actions resulted in her death. According to Goshko, the judges said, "We find that Hattie Carroll's death was not due solely to diseas...but that it was caused or hastened by the defendant's verbal insults coupled with an actual assault, and that he is guilty of manslaughter" (Goshko, "Zantzinger Guilty"). The judges said it would be "unreasonable and possibly subversive of justice" if no criminal responsibility was attached to the chain of events that started with Zantzinger's verbal and physical assaults and led to the death of Hattie Carroll (Goshko, "Zantzinger Guilty").

Race. Zantzinger was a rich white man. Carroll was a poor black woman. The second story to run in the Baltimore Sun discussed race plainly: "Both the women are Negroes" ("Zantzinger Gives"). The Washington Post did not mention race until more than a month after the incident, in an article by Peter S. Diggins. He quoted testimony during a preliminary hearing that described the victim as a "Negro female." Goshko quoted testimony from the trial in which Zantzinger reportedly referred to Carroll as a "n----r" ("Zantzinger Witness"). Goshko also reported the prosecuting attorney referring to Zantzinger as a man who was "unwilling to accept the verdict of Appomattox" ("Judges Weigh"). Glass quoted Zantzinger's wife, Jane, who said of Zantzinger's treatment of his black employees, "Nobody treats his n-----s as well as Billy [Zantzinger] does around here." In reference to black people, Zantzinger said, "I don't feel one way or another about 'em. But, hell, you wouldn't [want] to go to school with Negroes any more than you would with French people" (Glass).

The June 25, 1963, Baltimore Sun story by Erlandson is one of the first to hit on the potentially explosive nature of the case, quoting a judge who said, "There is no question that this case has notes of possible outside elements dealing with the public" (Erlandson, "Zantzinger Judges"). Among other events, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been murdered less than two weeks prior to the trial.

The sentencing. Glass recognized the controversial nature of the sentencing in his Washington Post article. He noticed that on a night when the "big news was the civil rights March on Washington" the panel of judges "decided that the first white man ever accused in this state of murdering a Negro woman had in fact committed manslaughter" (Glass). No other news organization in the data drew a connection between what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in Washington, D.C., and what happened to Zantzinger in a courtroom.

Glass's article was also one of the only articles to comment on the light sentence. He stated simply, "The judgment of William Devereux Zantzinger, a 24-year-old Southern Maryland farmer, was not severe" (Glass). According to his "sidewalk interviews" the public felt that Zantzinger "got off very lightly" (Glass). Outside of Glass's article, the Washington Post never commented on the light sentence. No article makes mention of his familial ties to power in Maryland after he received his sentence, and no article speculates on a connection between his family's political ties and his light sentence.

Zantzinger and Carroll seemed to be largely forgotten for nearly two months. On August 29, 1963, the front page of the Baltimore Sun was covered with stories about the civil rights march that had just taken place in Washington, D.C., featuring the dynamic "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There seems to be a slight slant in the headlines of these stories: "200,000 Attend Peaceful D.C. March," "Orderly Crowd Hears Appeals for Freedom, Racial Togetherness," and "D.C. Rally Described as Flawless." The most important part of the event, as implied by these stories, is the lack of violence, not the importance of the message or the urgency of the movement.2

Ironically, on the last page of the issue, an Associated Press story reporting Zantzinger's sentencing appears (Erlandson, "Zantzinger Judges Rule Out Murder"). The story makes no comment on the severity of the sentence, only restating the arguments of the defense that Carroll was dangerously ill anyway and that some witnesses questioned whether Zantzinger even had the cane when Carroll collapsed.

The traditional press, as represented by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and the wire services, delivered the "objective" coverage that communication scholar Kevin Stoker writes has become expected of mainstream newspapers since the Penny Press (6). There was very little editorializing. The issues of racism, classism, political favoritism, or any other potentially controversial issues were rarely raised. Bob Dylan, however, did just that in his version of the events.

Bob Dylan's Version of Hattie Carroll's Death

Bob Dylan and the press agreed upon some basic facts. Zantzinger struck Carroll with a cane. She died. Zantzinger was arrested on charges of first-degree murder. He was rich with well-connected parents. After a trial, the judges handed Zantzinger a six-month sentence for his role in Carroll's death.

Dylan's song manipulates the listener from the beginning, lyrically and musically pointing the reader toward the end of the last verse and the final chorus. The first verse outlines the case like a summary lede in a hard news story. The second verse describes Zantzinger's political connections and nasty personality. The third verse profiles Carroll and emphasizes her lowly status. After each of the first three verses, Dylan sings, "But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face. / Now ain’t the time for your tears" (Dylan).3

The fourth verse, like the final act in a drama, culminates in the courtroom. The last line is "[The judge] handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, / William Zanzinger [sic] with a six-month sentence." The entire song builds to the true crime – that Zantzinger slid through the system with a wrist-slap. In the final chorus, Dylan highlights that injustice, when he sings: "Oh, 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 song itself, at least on the original recording, is a plodding, almost painstaking waltz that retells the deadly story, played at about 45 beats per minute.4 The song begins with no introduction. Dylan's voice glides over gentle strumming: "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll." The chords are simple; the verses plod along with E major, C-sharp minor, and G-sharp minor.5 After six times through that progression, Dylan lands on a B chord and adds the seventh, signaling the transition to the chorus. That chord is the dominant one, which typically creates tension that can only be resolved with the tonic chord. In other words, Dylan uses harmonics to push the listener to his conclusion. The chorus soars and seems to have a more focused destination, compared to the more meandering verses. He then returns to the chord progression in the verses for seven lines in the second verse, and eleven each in the third and fourth verse, making a listener wonder if he will ever land on the B chord to get back to the chorus. In the third verse, Dylan ends three lines in a row with the word "table," highlighting Carroll's lowly profession. 

 Dylan's timing varies throughout the song, but he slows significantly after the line "And she never done nothin' to William Zanzinger," like a trial lawyer who lets a powerful statement reverberate through the courtroom. Dylan follows the third chorus with a harmonica solo, which hints at the original melody. Hearing the melody played through a tinny instrument with no lyrics makes the melody sound even more melancholic. After the punch line of the final verse and chorus, when Dylan finally tells listeners they should cry, he returns to his harmonica to send the song off. The staccato breaths he blows through the harmonica mimics the sound of sobbing.

From the beginning of the song, Dylan frames the story to promote his interpretation of the events. He vividly describes the blow from the cane: Carroll was "killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane." It was, of course, Zantzinger's cane that "sailed through the air and came down through the room." This move was "doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle." One gets the picture of a crazed murderer flying across the room and crashing the cane into Carroll's skull.

This version is consistent with the earliest reports of the event when the facts were still being sorted out. One article reported that Carroll was "stunned by a rain of blows about the face and shoulders" ("Zantzinger Surrenders"). Another wrote that Carroll had been "beaten with a cane" ("Zantzinger's Wife"). But further from the event, the press changed the way they described the attack. Soon they started saying she was "struck" by a cane; others wrote "caned." Thus, as the story unfolded, the press softened its representation of the events of that evening, yet Dylan persisted in presenting a vicious, murderous blow.

In addition, Dylan provides a clear picture of Zantzinger's family. In the second verse, Dylan highlights that fact that this 24-year-old owns a 600-acre tobacco farm. He is the child of "rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him." Dylan needed to make it clear how wealthy Zantzinger was. By showing the riches of this young socialite and comparing that to Carroll's poverty in the next verse, Dylan highlights the contrast between the "haves" and "have-nots," the privileged and the underprivileged. Zantzinger's family is connected to power in the state of Maryland. Thus Dylan sings about their "high office relations in the politics of Maryland." Here he sets up the scenario he describes in the final verse in which Zantzinger receives what Dylan considers an unjust trial.

Dylan also presents Zantzinger's personality. He reacted to the situation "with the shrug of his shoulders," "swear words," and "sneering." Zantzinger's lack of remorse makes the tragic events seem even worse and lends credence to the portrayal of Zantzinger as a racist who has little value for the lives of black people. According to Dylan, it was only "a matter of minutes" before he was initially released on bail. Dylan's description of Zantzinger's destruction of "all the gentle" is in opposition to the description of Zantzinger in the mainstream press as a "southern Maryland gentleman farmer." Dylan argues that there is nothing gentle about him. In fact, he destroys the gentle.

Dylan clearly makes the claim that Zantzinger's blow caused Carroll's death. The first line of the song states, "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll." Dylan did not write, "William Zanzinger caused the death of Hattie Carroll," "William Zanzinger fatally caned Hattie Carroll," or "William Zanzinger struck Hattie Carroll who died" as the mainstream press did. Dylan made his case clear: Zantzinger killed Carroll. Later in the first verse, Dylan sings, "His weapon took from him." It was not a toy or novelty cane; it was a weapon. According to Dylan, this was an act of hate-filled violence.

While Dylan never explicitly mentions the racial divide between the victim and the accused, he draws attention to the socioeconomic divide between the two. He refers to Carroll as "poor Hattie Carroll" in his opening line. The second line contrasts her socioeconomic position with Zantzinger's when he refers to Zantzinger's "diamond ring finger." Zantzinger's wealth was an important aspect of Dylan's version of the story.

The third verse profiles the victim. Hattie Carroll worked in the kitchen and was the mother of ten children.6 Dylan describes her job: she took out dishes and garbage. She never sat at the head of the table, never talked to her customers. Hattie simply cleaned up the food and emptied the ashtrays. Carroll was a faithful worker, willing to do her job and earn her money to feed her children. Dylan skillfully contrasts Carroll's role as someone who humbly serves with Zantzinger's position as someone who arrogantly expects service. Dylan never mentioned race, but the audience understands.

Before the third verse is over, Dylan makes clear the relationship between Carroll and Zantzinger in what is the most damning line of the song: "And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger." Dylan allows the strumming rhythm of the song to slow, letting this important fact sink in. This was a senseless act of violence with no provocation, no motive, and no remorse.

The final verse of Dylan's song describes Zantzinger's trial. Dylan's voice drips with sarcasm as he refers to "a courtroom of honor." The judge pounds his gavel "to show that all's equal and that the courts are on the level." Dylan refers back to his description of Zantzinger's well-connected family saying that "the strings in the book ain't pulled and persuaded" by those with money and power. In these courts, Dylan proclaims, "even the nobles get properly handled." He sings, "And that the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom." It was this supposedly honest court that looked upon Zantzinger, "the person who killed for no reason," and "handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, / William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence."

The climax of the narrative arrives with a punch. This entire story, the death of an innocent mother at the hands of a drunk, rich tobacco farmer in a foul mood, ended with a six-month sentence for manslaughter, not even one month for each motherless child left behind. Only one article referred to this sentence as light, yet this point was the focus of Dylan's reporting. His thesis becomes explicit: money and power are enough to tip the scales of justice, especially when the crime is against a poor person.

Dylan experts disagree on the origins of the song. Oliver Trager's encyclopedic volume on Dylan retells the "legend" that he learned about the story by reading a newspaper article on his way home from the March on Washington and wrote it in New York City (390).7 Mike Marqusee writes that Dylan received the story from Broadside magazine co-editor Gordon Friesen who regularly provided Dylan with stories for topical songs (81). Biographers Howard Sounes and Clinton Heylin state in separate biographies that Dylan wrote the song at Joan Baez's home in Carmel, California, in September of 1963 (Sounes 141-142, Heylin 124).

The facts were more or less the same. The story was sad whether you heard it from the Washington Post or from Dylan's record. But the two versions pointed out different reasons for the sadness. The mainstream press reported an ugly situation. It's sad that the mother of eleven children died and that a promising young man like Zantzinger allowed one night of drunkenness to derail his life. Zantzinger's senseless act ended one life and disrupted the lives of many others. For these reasons, we should cry.

For Dylan, the motherless children are not the saddest part of the story. The death of an innocent barmaid is not the saddest part either. The saddest part came when Zantzinger was tried in what Dylan described as a less-than-honest court. The strings were pulled. All was not equal. The courts were not on the level. The nobles clearly do get treated differently. By Dylan's account, Zantzinger received a joke of a sentence. Dylan makes it clear that certain lives in this society are valued differently than others, not based on one's actions or character, but on one's skin color, bank account, and family connections. For this fact, we should cry.

Dylan's lyrics more closely resemble the coverage from The Afro-American, a weekly black newspaper from Baltimore, which ran several stories on the Zantzinger case between February 16, 1963, and March 28, 1964 — providing the slant and sensationalism the mainstream press avoided. While much of the reporting was fact based and seemingly objective, The Afro-American, like the underground publications described in the literature, made editorial decisions that separated it from traditional newspapers.

The first story about Hattie Carroll's death on February 16, 1963, starts with a dramatic lede: "It all happened so fast. He was like a wild animal. After he had knocked her unconscious he became even more belligerent. And now she is dead. And all because she didn't serve him fast enough" ("Caned Barmaid Dies").8 Just as Dylan described Zantzinger as "doom and determined to destroy all the gentle," the story reads, "[H]e reportedly walked to the bar in the ballroom and began to beat Mrs. Carroll, who dropped to the floor unconscious." That sequence of events was compressed. Like Dylan's reference to Zantzinger's "diamond ring finger," The Afro-American contrasted Carroll's lowly status with Zantzinger’s privileged one. The charity event was described as "swank," and the story mentions Zantzinger's "wrinkled clothes" and "wilted carnation in his lapel."

The next week, The Afro-American ran three front-page stories about Carroll's death, one about the likelihood of Zantzinger requesting to move the trial, one about the bitter reaction over the death, and one about the crowds at Carroll's funeral. These stories deal with the racial tensions that arose from the death. Ralph Matthews reports of the funeral, "No white faces were to be seen except in cars wizzing [sic] east on Mulberry St. past the church." The pastor of Carroll's church said, "Downtown yesterday, I paused and wondered to myself if I am in Baltimore or in Alabama or Mississippi?”"(Matthews). The story about the reaction discussed the several phone calls that The Afro-American and NAACP offices received and quoted a statement by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), stating how they hoped that the willingness to release Zantzinger on bail was not an indication of racial preference that might affect a trial ("Reaction Bitter"). CORE was the organization with which Dylan's one-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo was involved, which possibly connected him to the story.

By the start of the trial, the tone of the coverage in The Afro-American changes. A large headline appears: "Cane-Killer's Trial Set." Instead of writing, "Alleged Cane-Killer" or using qualifiers like accused, charged, reported, and so on, the editors make their view clear: Zantzinger killed Carroll with his cane. He's the "Cane-Killer." The headline is not much different from Dylan's "lede." He sings, "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll." This type of language would never have appeared in the New York Times.

The sensational headlines continued. The following week's front-page read, "'You Black B----' Shouts Cane-Killer" (Collins). The story begins with another lede, this time from Grace Shelton's testimony about what Zantzinger said: "Why are you so slow, you black B----?" Even the slug indicating the continuation of the story on the second page reiterated the headline.

During the trial, Zantzinger admits to drinking and not remembering the events that night. The headline of the June 29, 1963, story reads, "Cane-Killer Forgets," and the subheadline reads, "He can't remember fatal blow" (James Williams). The headline almost seems mocking in its tone, saying, "Can you believe that? He doesn't remember!" The "shrug of the shoulder" that Dylan describes represents the inability of the killer to remember or care.

The story written by Williams reports that many guests of the charity event appeared as witnesses at the trial. He writes, "Many of them wore rather shamed faced expressions, as if they were embarrassed [to] be involved in a trial of this nature" ("Cane-Killer Forgets"). Williams ends his article with these two sentences: "If they [the Zantzingers] were disturbed, it did not show on their faces. Take them from this place and put them in a more accustomed setting and they would be the embodiment of the 'ideal' American couple as projected by the advertising merchants — young, well dressed and handsome" ("Cane-Killer Forgets").

One week later, Williams reports Zantzinger's guilty verdict of manslaughter and three counts of assault (James D. William).9 The reporter summed up the trial: "As the state charged, and then proved, the blow that Zantzinger struck and the vile racial epithets he used to insult her, were enough to cause a brain hemorrhage that resulted in a stroke that killed her" ("Cane-Killer Found Gulity").

Williams's article has a victorious feel. He recognized the importance of this case. It was rich versus poor, white versus black, haves versus have-nots. Williams states that Petty's testimony carried "the ring of authority." For the first time in The Afro-American coverage, Williams's story pointed out the elevated stakes. Like Dylan pointing to flaws in the system, Williams writes, "It was not only Zantzinger that was to be placed on trial, it was Maryland justice as well." He asserts that Carroll "was no longer an unknown — she was a crusade" ("Cane-Killer Found Guilty").

That victorious tone disappears two month later when Zantzinger is sentenced. "Cane-Killer Gets Off with Six Months," the headline reads (Johnson). The article is very even-handed, noting that some observers said the sentence was an "unexpectedly 'light' penalty." Johnson writes that the judges said the event was similar to vehicular manslaughter and that if Carroll had been a healthy person, "we would have never heard anything about it."


Music as Underground Journalism

In many ways, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" functions like underground journalism. The review of literature showed three common elements of underground journalism: opposition to the mainstream media, the rejection of the ideal of objectivity, and the use of unconventional means of producing and distributing their message.

Before performing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" at the Royal Albert Hall in London on May 10, 1965, Dylan said, "This is a true story. It comes from the newspapers. Nothing in this story's been changed except the words" (Dont Look Back). With that statement, Dylan explicitly proclaims that he intended to counter the coverage found in the mainstream media. He recognized that to get at the "truth," he needed to change the words. As the above analysis has shown, Dylan highlighted different aspects of the case to provide an alternative interpretation of the event, so the elements that become salient are race, class, injustice, and a crooked justice system.

Dylan's quote above also shows his disregard for objectivity. He is presenting the truth as he sees it, not worrying about objectivity, detachment, and the other ideals of the mainstream media. Dylan had a point of view to get across, and by framing the case the way he did, he was able to make the political statement he felt the mainstream press missed.

Dylan also got his message heard through unconventional methods. By using music rather than print to tell a news story, he takes a nontraditional route to news distribution. Music has distributed information and recorded history for centuries. Yet in 1963, the "news" was considered the business of newspapers and television networks, not messy-headed folk singers with scratchy, nasally voices. Dylan's unique musical techniques and sounds only add to the unconventionality of his message.

Even Dylan's language was purposefully unconventional — much like his idol's, Woody Guthrie. Dylan sings, "And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger." Having grown up in a middle-class home in Minnesota, receiving a high school education, and enrolling at the University of Minnesota, Dylan certainly knew that the line should have been, "And she never did anything to William Zantzinger." However, by using grammatically incorrect language, Dylan separates himself even more from the mainstream media, highlighting the difference between his version of the story and the story presented by the media.

The point that Dylan's music works as a form of journalism is supported by a UPI article in the May 28, 1964, edition of the Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. The story reports that three students from Northwestern University started a fundraiser for Carroll's children. After hearing the song, the three young men "were particularly touched by the withdrawal from college by one of Mrs. Carroll's sons because of the financial problems brought about by his mother's death" ("Dead Barmaid's Eulogy"). Dylan's song proved to be an effective way for people outside of Baltimore to learn about Carroll's death.

But Dylan got it wrong. Zantzinger was not a crazed, racist lunatic. The beating was not so violent. The light sentence was not ridiculous. Dylan exaggerated the events of the night, quite likely for political or artistic purposes. He wanted to sell records, and this dramatic story certainly helped. In his analysis of Dylan's recording sessions, rock biographer Clinton Heylin calls "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" a "gross misrepresentation of the facts" (27), and in his biography of Dylan states the song "verges on the libelous" (124). He writes, "Dylan's concern, though, was not the facts themselves but how they might fit his preconceived notions of injustice and corruption" (125).

After Zantzinger's death in 2009, the New Yorker published a brief article by television producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon highlighting Dylan's artistic liberties and exaggerations. Simon said he found references to a letter in Carroll's file written by a "folksinger in New York who seeks information about the aforementioned case, which was investigated by your agency" (24). The letter was gone, but Simon suggests a remorseful Dylan wrote it.

While Dylan did exaggerate, it is also possible that the exaggeration did not start with him. Broadside magazine was a folk-enthusiast periodical that promoted folk events and published folk songs. The late March 1963 issue included a song called "Ballad of Hattie Carroll" by Don West and an article titled "Rich Brute Slays Negro Mother of 10" by Roy H. Wood. The song goes, "A story of a brutal murder / Done by a rich & powerful man / Who beat to death a maid of color / With stylish cane held in his hand." Later, "The big man pounded on the table / She hardly heard what he did say / When Hattie went to get his order / He took his cane & flailed away."

The accompanying news story was not much more accurate. Wood wrote of a "brutal beating by a wealthy socialite." The death scene is described: "[H]e strode to the bar and rained blows on the head and back of Mrs. Carroll who was working there. The cane was broken in three pieces." At the end of the article, Wood predicts the light sentence Zantzinger will get. He writes: "The judge who released Zantzinger on bond has already permitted his attorney to claim that Mrs. Carroll died indirectly as a result of the attack rather than directly. " It is hard to know if Dylan read this story, though his connection to the folk community and the publishers of the magazine are well documented (Harvey 63).

However, this article is not focused on proving whether or not Dylan got the facts right. As demonstrated by the first report that showed up in the Washington Post, even conventional, well-funded, and objective news organizations can make mistakes or rely on unreliable sources. Instead, this study shows the power of songs in communicating important ideas. By framing the story to make the issues of class, race, and injustice salient, Dylan performs a form of alternative journalism, opposing the "objective" and "factual" account of the mainstream media for an account that might get closer to the "truth."

Almost sixty years after the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech still holds a rightful position in American history and culture. William Zantzinger holds a position in American popular culture, too, though maybe less deservedly. His story ended up in a great song on a great album by a great artist. Dylan's coverage of Carroll's death — with its slick wording, soaring melody, and masterful storytelling — makes Zantzinger an infamous villain and Carroll a righteous martyr. Closer to the truth is that Zantzinger was a young jerk, and Carroll was dangerously ill already. Even though Dylan got it wrong, his story is the one remembered. 



1. Many of the reports in the Baltimore Sun have no bylines and no indication of a wire service. When an author or wire service is listed, it will be noted in the text.

2. For a closer examination of the coverage of the March on Washington, see Ian Frazier, "Legacy of a Lonesome Death," Mother Jones, vol. 29, no. 6, 2004, pp. 42-47.

3. All lyrics are taken from 1964, 1966 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1994 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission.

4. A well-known version of the song is in the documentary Dont Look Back (1965) [sic]. But in that version, which is incomplete because filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker ran out of film, Dylan plays the songs significantly faster, about 60 beats per minute. That film captures Dylan's transition from folk singer to rock star. Dylan's rushed and slightly sloppy rendition of the song is one more signal that he was becoming less interested in political causes, at least musically.

5. Dylan plays the song with a capo on the fourth fret, which makes the chord-shapes he plays C major, A minor, and E minor.

6. The newspapers reported that Carroll was the mother of eleven children while Dylan wrote ten, which is an interesting mistake made by Dylan. Certainly, it is sadder to have one more motherless child and would have only supported Dylan's argument. It is possible that Dylan chose ten rather than eleven for aesthetic purposes and poetic meter. However, Dylan’s song does not follow any regular rhythmic or rhyming pattern that would justify the shorter word. An article in the folk music magazine Broadside, which is considered by some to be Dylan's source and will be discussed in more detail later, called Carroll a mother of ten in the headline. If this was the source, that would explain the discrepancy.

7. An article in the January 26, 2009, issue of the New Yorker reinforces this interpretation. David Simon, "Dept. of Annotation: A Lonesome Death,”"New Yorker, 26 January 2009, pp. 24.

8. Many of the stories about Carroll's death and Zantzinger's trial have no bylines for the authors. When the author is listed, the name is included in the text of this article.

9. James D. WIlliams is presumably the same reporter as the James Williams, who reported the week before. The byline, however,  contains his middle initial in this story.


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