Did Bob Dylan unfairly ridicule William Zantzinger?





In February of 1963, twenty-four-year-old William Zantzinger, armed with a toy carnival cane and wrecked on whiskey, made a spectacle of himself at the Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. He was a drunken country mouse in the big city, at a time when the notion of racial equality had barely shown itself in the neighborhood of his father’s tobacco farm. When the hotel’s black waitstaff was slow to serve Zantzinger another drink, he yelled racial epithets at Hattie Carroll, a barmaid and a fifty-one-year-old mother of eleven, and he rapped her on the shoulder with his cane. She became upset, then collapsed and died of a stroke.
Bob Dylan read about the case in the newspaper. He wrote the magnificent “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with the paper splayed on the table of a Seventh Avenue luncheonette. Zantzinger was then and forever after a master villain.

Twenty-five years later, I tried to interview him for a newspaper story. He was working in a real-estate office (there was an equal-housing sticker on the door), and I found Zantzinger a disappointing lump of a man, with small dark eyes and black hair thinning from behind. The eyes followed me angrily as I offered up my two-sides-to-every-story patter, trying to get him to talk....

... [E]ven a dispassionate reading of the facts of the case leads one to conclude that Dylan took great liberties. Hattie Carroll was not “slain by a cane” that was “doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle,” as Dylan wrote. No physical injury was done to her, nor was there any evidence to suggest lethal intent. The medical examiner’s report—citing Carroll’s enlarged heart and severe hypertension—attributed her death as much to Zantzinger’s verbal abuse as to the tap of his cane. Nor did Zantzinger have “high office relations in the politics of Maryland” to influence the case, as Dylan implied.
Zantzinger ran through all of this. He knew the song and its equivocations. He knew precisely the historical role to which it had consigned him.
“He did some good stuff, I guess,” he said of Dylan. “The blowing-with-the-wind song, that one? But I’m probably not gonna be the best judge. I mean, for me, he’s not much of a singer.”...


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