The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll


Hattie Carroll chronicles a real event. The lyrics reference the real names of the people involved. Hattie Carroll really was a “maid in the kitchen”. William Zantzinger really did “own a tobacco farm”. And so on.

Below is an article about the event published in the Baltimore Sun.


Baltimore–Mrs. Hattie Carroll, 51, Negro waitress at the Emerson Hotel, died last week as the result of a brutal beating by a wealthy socialite during the exclusive Spinster’s Ball at that hotel. Mrs. Carroll, mother of 10 children, was the deacon of the Gilliss Memorial Church. She died in the hospital where she had been taken after being felled from blows inflicted by William Devereux Zantzinger, 24, owner of a 600 acre tobacco farm near Marlsboro, Md.

Mrs Carroll was one of two waitresses whom Zantzinger struck with a wooden cane at the society affair. He first struck at Mrs. Ethel Hill, 30, Negro waitress who was cleaning a table near him, then, without being restrained by any of the other members of the social register present at the white-tie affair, he 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 this point other hotel employees called the police.

Mrs. Carroll was taken to the hospital, where she died from internal hemorrhages. As police were taking Zantzinger down the stairs from the ballroom, his wife, one of the socially prominent Duvall family, leaped from the landing and struck a policeman, who had to be hospitalized with a leg injury.

A Negro bellman at the hotel reported that earlier in the evening, Zantzinger struck him across the buttocks with his cane. Zantzinger’s father is a member of the state planning commission in Maryland. Others of his relatives in the Devereux family are prominent in politics here. 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. There is speculation here that attempts will be made to get Zantzinger off with a slap on the wrist. Recently a “cat burglar” caught in the wealthiest section here, Guilford, received a 99-year sentence. He never once committed violence.

The Sun article left out some important details and got some of the facts wrong. For example, the cane was the sort purchased or won at a carnival, certainly much lighter than a normal walking cane. It probably didn’t take a lot of force to break it into three pieces. Also, Carroll did not die of “internal hemorrhages” but from a stroke. She died about nine hours after Zantzinger hit her. Carroll had nine children, not ten. Dylan, probably relying on the newspaper article, repeated some of the same mistakes.

For his violence against Carroll, Zantzinger was initially charged with one count of making a “false and misleading oral and written statement”, which carried a maximum potential penalty of a year in jail and a thousand dollar fine. More charges were added later. He ended up pleading guilty to fifty misdemeanors and was sentenced to nineteen months in jail.

Regardless of the details of the case, there is no doubt that Zantzinger was a pretty despicable character. He didn’t improve much with age either. Peter Carlson of the Washington Post wrote an extensive profile on Zantzinger in 1991. Carlson noted that Zantzinger regularly appeared on the list of citizens who did not pay their county property taxes. More seriously, he was charged and convicted of collecting rent for five years from several very poor black families on houses he no longer owned. The condition of the houses was unspeakably bad: no running water, not even an outhouse. The tenets had to dump their waste in the woods, a practice that eventually contaminated the water in the wells they used for drinking water.

By and large, the townsfolk still supported Zantzinger and weren’t too fond of Dylan. Carlson quotes one resident:

Sprague (a local resident) believes that the media distorted the Hattie Carroll case. They made it sound like he was Rhett Butler riding around on a white horse with a whip,” he said. “He was just an unfortunate victim of his times because in the ‘60s, with integration going on, that played well.” Sprague’s no fan of the Bob Dylan song either: “If Paul Anka wrote it, I’d be concerned,” he said. “But that’s just my personal opinion.”

I have some reservations about how the facts of the case are misrepresented in the song. Dylan may not be completely to blame, since he probably wrote the song straight from the Sun article. He introduced the song at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival as “here’s something right out of the newspapers”. He did however have plenty of time to revise it, since Times was not released until February of 1964, well after Zantzinger’s trial. At the very least I think it’s fair to say that Dylan was something of a sloppy journalist.

Let’s take a look at how Dylan takes liberty with the facts. First, the song doesn’t mention that Carroll didn’t die immediately but instead some time after Zantzinger was released on bail. The song claims that Zantzinger was charged with first-degree murder, but doesn’t mention that he was found guilty of manslaughter, which makes the six-month sentence a little more reasonable. Bending the truth like this but still using the real names of the characters strikes me as a little unfair to Zantzinger, the dirtball that he certainly was.

Even without these issues, I still don’t think it ranks with Dylan’s best. It doesn’t hold up well on repeated listens. The basic journalistic qualities of the song make it sound like yesterday’s news. Also, the ending line – “Now IS the time for your tears” – is too easy to predict after hearing “Now ain’t the time for your tears” over and over. I’m also not a big fan of the rhyming of the word “table” with itself three times in a row. I might be able to accept twice, but I draw the line at three!

But maybe that is just me. Many Dylan fans adore the song. Phil Ochs wrote a nice article in Broadside in 1964 praising the artistry of the song.

After Judy Collins’ N.Y. Town Hall concert in which she performed Bob Dylan’s “Hattie Carroll”, I overheard a well-known commercial folk singer criticizing it as “another one of those black and white songs.” Another act I know said the song was no good because it was too preachy.

It’s a sad comment on the folk community when normally intelligent people can totally misunderstand such an important work. I believe this song could add a new dimension to topical songs that has been missing too often in the past. I’d like to use the song as an example to some of the writers who contribute to Broadside.

There are many pitfalls that Dylan might have fallen into while treating such a delicate and difficult subject. It would have been easy to describe the event and ask, “Wasn’t that a terrible shame, don’t let her die in vain”, and put the usual sarcastic “land of the free” line at the end. I think this all too simple artless approach is what the Little Sandy Review critics are rightfully opposed to.

In line after poetic line Dylan brings out all the pathos and irony of a tragic crime. He never gets trapped trying to fit a thought into a prescribed rhyme form. What more effective beginning could he have chosen than to use the sound of the name William Zantzinger and the description of the weapon, “with a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger,” to carry over to the man?

He gives the setting in the first verse and asks that those who would shed a tear over the murder to wait and listen to more. In the second verse he describes Zantzinger’s connections with high office relations in the politics of Maryland who reacted to his deed with a shrug of the shoulder.” Once again he deftly understates the evil, never making the mistake of calling him a brute of coward and ruining the narration.

Dylan describes Hattie Carroll as a “maid of the kitchen”, not a downtrodden maid or a poor Negro woman. He brings out the pathos of her life perfectly with “she never sat once at the head of the table.”

The description of the murder has to be one of the classics of American folk music: “the cane sailed through the air and came down through the room, doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle, and she never did nothing to William Zantzinger.” I listened to Bob’s third record with him before it was released, and the song that moved him most was Hattie Carroll.

The use of poetry is paramount to his effective narration, and one of this most important techniques is that he always avoids the obvious. Probably the main thing wrong with so many of the songs sent to BROADSIDE is that they overstate the obvious when it doesn’t need to be stated at all.

In the last verse, Bob reaches new heights by describing the judge’s pounding of his gavel with the following ironic points: “to show that all’s equal” and that “the courts are on the level”, and that “even the nobles get properly handled”, “the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded”, and the “ladder of the law has no top and no bottom”. Then the judge stares at the man “who killed for no reason”, “and spoke through his cloak more deep and distinguished, and handed out strongly for penalty and repentance, William Zantzinger with a six-month sentence.” And the chorus ends bitterly, “Now is the time for your tears.” With all this he leaves the listener stunned with a sense of injustice.

The understatement, the subtle lyric, the ironic twist, are demonstrated time and again throughout the song. There is no empty cry of shame, or bland pleas for decency. There is no justification for a bad song no matter how important the cause, and I sincerely hope some of the BROADSIDE songwriters will learn some of the lessons taught so well in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

Let’s end this discussion with Paul Williams’ perceptive take on the final few lines of the song:

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.

[Dylan] uses the song in a variety of ways: to talk about Hattie Carroll, to talk about Zanzinger’s arrogance, to talk about the court’s hypocrisy, and finally to express his dislike of people who are on the right side of the issues but don’t care about the human beings involved– hypocrites crying crocodile tears.

A pretty nice live version is included on The Bootleg Series Volume 5: Live 1975.

A bootleg from the  Hurricane Carter benefit.

A nice one from a member of the progressive rock group,  Yes.


William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

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 the 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.
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.

9 thoughts on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

  1. I know it’s been 10 yrs since the last comment (I hope all are still well) but I was looking into the historicity of the song, one that still makes me well up any time I hear it, and was happy to find the article and discussion.

    I’d imagine most people who find their way here still remember vividly the days before we had all information at our fingertips… And I’ll agree Dylan wasn’t the best “journalist” but it’s very easy to picture a songwriter coming across an article that resonated and then took the details from that article to write a message. I’m not sure how much he kept up with the latter bits, but I can also imagine him having the narrative in place by the time he came across any discrepancies and by that time, the song was its own thing. Just my two cents.

    As for rhyming tables with tables… I quite like it. I always took it as a way of driving home that this was a place where Hattie Carroll spent her life attending to others. A place she knew well and would have been so familiar to her. Of course that’s what the content suggests, but it strikes me as a tool to get the listener to view that table and a life centered around it… the song always coming back to it as Hattie’s life and death did.

    Thanks for all you do.

    1. A young Dylan fan here who almost finished Chronicles I. Been listening to Dylan for a couple of years now and from the information I gleaned and my understanding of him a s a young musician trying to make a name for hiself, folk music was in a sense like a knocking stone for him to gain some publicitiy and make a name for himself in New York City when he first started his career. He did spend great length talking about folk music and the many greats who came before him and he did say folk music was of great importance to him that connected to him the most (just to clarify that I didn’t mean that he’s a folk music phony which later he turned electric). I just kinda get that he would bend some facts in the song as the expense of getting famous? Maybe. There’s also the interview of him bashing on the Time Magazine around that time as well and Dylan was never a fan of the magazine even before they started tormenting him. Overall it’s very complicated, even for a man with multitudes.

  2. hi steve. this is a great site. i am a long time dylan fan but i really enjoy being able to discuss the meaning of his poetry/lyrics.

    i agree with one criticism you’e made – i didn’t like the rhyming of “table” with itself 3 times either. not sure what dylan was trying to do there but if there isn’t some specific literary reason, it just comes off kind of lazy.

    i’m interested in your interpretation of the chorus. “you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears.”  you take that to mean the liberal audience for the story, i took it the complete other way. those who “philosophize disgrace” to me were those who justified bigotry, and i took the tears to be tears of shame. however, you could be right. i will give it another listen or 10 thinking of that interpretation.

    anyway thanks for the site –  you’ve put a lot of work into this, but i think it’s worth it – we are talking about a great poet here. i’ll check in on other songs you’ve commented on. i know it’s very new, but i’d love to hear your interpretation of “early roman kings.”

    1. Thanks Susanna! Al right, somebody agrees with me about the “table’ rhymes. That’s always bugged me. I’ll do the same about the “disgrace and criticize all fears”. I never thought if it that way. I’ll post back if I have any new thoughts.

      I love Tempest, and Early Roman Kings in particular. Although I haven’t analyzed it in any detail, my first thought was that it was a pointed jab at the “1 %ers”, the financial class, the venture capitalists. I always picture Mitch Romney wearing a “shark-skin” suit. I hope one day to expand my site to new Dylan work. Never enough time (sigh).

      thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. Some might say that Dylan was something of a sloppy journalist. But anyone who knows his work would know that he rarely if ever gets the detail and facts correct, odd things get changed, misremembered or improved in many songs. The truths he captures are not literal but are all the more powerful because he does not concentrate on accuracy, he crafts memorable words and pictures and has never shown any concern that the newspaper, the courts, the historians, the propagandists, the activists would all tell it differently. Often more accurately in fact and detail. That is of no concern to the songwriter Bob Dylan.

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