Fifty years ago today, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan sat down to record "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" at Studio A in New York City. The song is a mostly factual account of the then-recent murder of African American barmaid Hattie Carroll by wealthy tobacco farmer William Zantzinger.
Taken together, the three versions of the song tell a story that illuminates structural injustice.
The song appeared on "The Times They Are A-Changing," an album full of remarkable works. But what makes "Hattie Carroll" special, from today's vantage point, is its topical nature and continuing relevance. The song comments directly on the social problems of its time, and younger songwriters have adopted its melody and structure to talk about today's injustices.
The verses of the song—each of which consists of a single, detail-heavy sentence—lay out a slightly simplified version of the facts of the case, while the final chorus provides Dylan’s commentary on the immorality of the event:
But you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face,
For now is the time for your tears.
"The story I took out of a newspaper," Dylan told talk-show host Steve Allen. "I used it for something I wanted to say."
Songwriters have tended to leave that chorus intact while adjusting the verses to fit modern-day issues. In 2006, British musician and activist Billy Bragg gave the Hattie Carroll treatment to Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003. Like Dylan before him, Bragg uses the verses to weave together sharply reported details of Corrie's case with commentary on the political context:
Rachel Corrie had 23 years
She was born in the town of Olympia, Washington
A skinny, messy, list-making chain-smoker
Who volunteered to protect the Palestinian people
Who had become non-persons in the eyes of the media
So that people were suffering and no one was seeing
Or hearing or talking or caring or acting...
(You can download a free copy of the song at the Guardian, and listen to it in the video below.)
Then, just last year, Massachusetts songwriter Jonah Mantranga became the latest singer to borrow Dylan's melody and chorus, this time applying it to the case of Trayvon Martin. His song puts George Zimmerman in the role of William Zantzinger, showing an eerie set of parallels between the two cases.
George Zimmerman, who had 28 years
Has a dad who's a judge who keeps speaking for him
And over the years he's tried to protect him
With his high-court relations in the politics of Florida
Matranga says he was inspired to write the song by his "radically inclusive" Methodist church where he sings in the choir. In an email, Mantranga wrote that "the whole community addressed [the Trayvon case] head-on, speaking out against profiling."
Taken together, the three stories—of Hattie Carroll, Rachel Corrie, and Trayvon Martin—build a story that transcends lines of race, gender, and identity, illuminating structural injustice and appealing to a higher conscience.
The legacy of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" points to the lasting power of music to bring meaning to senseless tragedies.