By Richard Lee
In a career that has spanned more than six decades, Bob Dylan has written songs of every size and shape. Dylan, who turns 79 today, even wrote one that follows the traditional structure of a news story.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1964 The Times They Are a-Changin’ album, tells the story of a barmaid who died after a drunken patron assaulted her.
Dylan’s first line is written like the lead of a newspaper story. It tells the gist of the story in one concise sentence: “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger at a Baltimore hotel society gathering.”
The lyrics also answer most of the Who? What? When? Where? Why? When? and How? questions that belong in a lead.
Who? William Zanzinger.
What? Killed poor Hattie Carroll.
How? With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.
Where? At a Baltimore hotel society gathering.
As the song continues, it follows the inverted pyramid style of news story. Each verse provides additional details of the story, following a progression of most important to least.
In the second verse, we learn about Zanzinger, the man who committed the crime. Dylan’s lyrics tell us Zanzinger was 24 and owned a 600-acre tobacco farm. He came from a wealthy and well-connected family.
Verse three tells us about the victim. Hattie Carroll was 51 and the mother of 10 children. Her work at the hotel was unglamorous. She carried dishes, cleaned tables, emptied ashtrays and took out garbage.
The song diverts from traditional news story structure in its final verse in which we learn a judge sentenced Zanzinger to six months in jail for his role in Carroll’s death. The sentence arguably could have been the lead of a story. It was a new and important development. It also was a controversial development, given the nature of the crime and the length of the jail term.
But by journalism standards, the “buried lead” is not Dylan’s greatest flaw. He also changed facts and embellished the story.
Zanzinger’s name actually contains the letter “t” and is spelled Zantzinger. And Carroll was the mother of 11 children, not 10. Music journalists have speculated that the song flowed better musically without the “t” in Zanzinger’s name and the extra two syllables in the word “eleven.”
Dylan’s other digressions from the facts are more serious.
Zantzinger was not booked for first-degree murder when he was taken into custody, as the lyrics suggest. Carroll, who had high blood pressure and other health conditions, collapsed in the hotel and was hospitalized. She did not die until the next morning, so Zantzinger could not have been charged with murder at the time of his arrest.
Dylan’s song implies that Zantzinger received a light sentence for committing a murder. The lyrics never inform the listener that Zantzinger was convicted of manslaughter and assault – serious charges, but not as serious as first-degree murder.
Dylan is not a journalist; he is a songwriter. He should not be held to the same standards as a journalist. Songwriters remove syllables here and there to make the music better. They also take poetic license to more effectively deliver needed and powerful messages.
On the other hand, a song by an artist as popular as Bob Dylan can reach more people – over a longer period of time – than a news story. It has been 56 years since “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was released. Dylan’s version of the story likely has reached more people than the versions that appeared in news reports in 1963.
So even though songwriters, like authors, playwrights, screenwriters and other artists, are not journalists, their work over time can become what the public regards as “facts” about real people and real incidents.
However, holding artists to the same standards as journalists is not a practical expectation.
Instead, it is incumbent upon all of us as consumers to discern the difference between what is fact and what is fact-based — and to then enjoy the creativity of the talented people who bring us music, literature, theater and other forms of art and entertainment.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a former music journalist who often writes about the intersection of music and current events. This column is based on “Bob Dylan, Citizen Journalist: Exploring “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’,” a presentation he made at the World of Bob Dylan Symposium at the University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies on June 1, 2019.