The Art of Bob Dylan's ``Hattie Carroll''

by Phil Ochs

From Broadside 48 July 20 1964; page 2

`After Judy Collins' N.Y. Town Hall concert in which she performed Bob Dylan's ``Hattie Carroll'' (BROADSIDE #43), 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 or 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 or her life perfectly with ``she never sat once at the head of the table.''

The description of the murder has to be one or 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 his most important techniques is that he always avoids the obvious. Probably the main thing wrong with so many or 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 most 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 through out 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 or the BROADSIDE songwriters will learn some of the lessons taught so well in ``The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.''


Note: Bob Dylan is to be at Newport Folk Festival workshop on topical songs Fri. afternoon, July 24, along with Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Driftwood, Frank Proffitt, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and others. Pete Seeger will host this workshop which will deal with Broadsides old and new.'

Thanks to Geoff for supplying this article
Last modified 2 May 99 by trent