“The danger of success is that it makes us forget the world’s dreadful injustice.”
If I faced one of those apocalyptic lifeboat scenarios and could preserve only one example of each type of music, I’d choose Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to represent protest music.
That’s a big statement, I know, and I can imagine fans of “Chimes of Freedom,” “Masters of War,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “The Universal Soldier” and many, many more saying, “What?”
I love all those songs, but if the core of protest music is man’s inhumanity to man and our helplessness before that evil, then “Hattie Carroll” brings it all together in a microcosm. Based on a real incident in the early Sixties, the song tells the story of a black waitress who suffered brain damage and died after a drunken assault by a wealthy white farmer. For the crime he was sentenced to six months in prison, deferred until he could finish getting his crops harvested.
I listened to “Hattie Carroll” again this morning after reading the news that William Zantzinger, Hattie Carroll’s attacker, died over the weekend at age 69. There’s more about him, Hattie Carroll and the case here.
Click here to read the “Hattie Carroll” lyrics and to hear Dylan sing the song. It’s his delivery, weary and angry together, that makes the indelible impression. Or, if you’d like a double blast from the past, go here to watch Dylan do the song on Steve Allen’s old show. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s amazing it exists at all.