i was combing my hair, man
slipaway

music friday: bob dylan, "the lonesome death of hattie carroll"

Where is the true story? I had a hard time hunting this down, until I realized that it came in the afterword to a second edition of a book that I only owned the first edition of (what a crappy sentence that was). Bill James wrote of William Zantzinger:

He went into the real estate business, wound up renting inexpensive housing mostly to black people. A young woman who worked as a housing advocate for the poor, many years later, was astonished to discover that Zantzinger – then facing charges for housing code violations, charges which eventually landed him in jail for longer than the death of Hattie Carroll – was actually a likeable and decent man who was just trying to do what he could to help poor people find housing that they could afford. It is always best, I think, to remember that wickedness is human. (Popular Crime, 473-4)

Wikipedia tells us this version of the story:

In addition to federal tax delinquencies, Zantzinger fell more than $18,000 behind on county taxes on properties he owned in two Charles County communities called Patuxent Woods and Indian Head, shanties he leased to poor blacks. In 1986, the same year the IRS ruled against him, Charles County confiscated those properties. Nonetheless, Zantzinger continued to collect rents, raise rents, and even successfully prosecute his putative tenants for back rent. In June 1991, Zantzinger was initially charged with a single count of "deceptive trade practices." After some delay, Zantzinger pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts of unfair and deceptive trade practices. He was sentenced to 19 months in prison and a $50,000 fine. Some of his prison sentence was served in a work release program.

In 2004, Ian Frazier wrote a detailed article on the song and the case for Mother Jones. It’s worth reading the entire piece … I’m doing it an injustice by excerpting, as he interviews several key witnesses of the time. Here he discusses the song itself:

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator's name, omitting the t—perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs. Zantzinger's actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly conduct—he was wildly drunk—and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger's verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault, but not of murder.

And here he addresses Zantzinger’s later property dealings:

In 1986, because of the back taxes, the county took possession of some ramshackle rental houses he owned in a neighborhood called Patuxent Woods. What Zantzinger did next got his name back in the news. He knew that the county now owned the properties, but that the renters, all poor and black, did not know. Counting on a lack of attention all around, he simply went on collecting rents as before. Even more enterprising, when tenants fell behind on their rent, he filed complaints against them and took them to court for not paying him rent on property he no longer owned. The county court, in calm and bureaucratic ignorance, heard the cases. And to put the cap on it, he won.

And, in what is perhaps the source for James’ comments, former housing activist Candice Quinn Kelly says, “I feel strange saying this, but Billy Zantzinger is really a very nice man.”

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” appeared on The Times They Are a-Changin’, which mostly marked the end of his protest-song days. His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was more “personal”. More than a decade later, on the album Desire, he included the songs “Hurricane”, about the imprisoned former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and “Joey”, about the gangster Joey Gallo. Both were “protest” songs, but something had changed since the mid-60s. Regardless of the accuracy of the songs’ presentation of the actual events, Dylan’s sympathies lie in an interesting place, as Robert Christgau noted at the time: “These are not protest songs, folks, not in the little-people tradition of "Hattie Carroll"; their beneficiaries are (theoretically) wronged heroes, oppressed overdogs not unlike our beleaguered superstar himself.”

Dylan in 1965: http://youtu.be/8C16SpTNbKY

Dylan in 1975: http://youtu.be/IAvPvll0iVI

Phranc: http://youtu.be/ffYkF1Ds8ng

Comments