Originally posted January 12, 2009
I wrote the other day about scanning the daily obituaries and on occasion seeing a name that spurs a memory or a thought. It happened again over the weekend while I was browsing news online.
I read in a news account that William Zantzinger, who had died at the age of sixty-nine, was buried Friday, January 10, in Maryland. And as I read, I heard in my head Bob Dylan’s flat early-Sixties voice:
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.
That’s the opening verse of Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” released in 1964 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. The song tells the 1963 tale of what happened when Carroll, a fifty-one-year-old African-American barmaid, died of a stroke a few hours after Zantzinger, who was twenty-four and white, stuck Carroll with his cane when she displeased him during a charity ball at Baltimore’s Emerson Hotel.
The Los Angeles Times has a good account of the events of that evening, of the trial for manslaughter that followed, and of the rest of Zantzinger’s life. (While writing the song, Dylan dropped the “t” from Zantzinger’s name, possibly for legal reasons.)*
“Hattie Carroll” is not one of Dylan’s songs I know well. I knew it well enough to recognize Zantzinger’s name and recall most of the first verse, but it’s not one I’ve dug into very deeply, not the way I’ve examined songs of his that came along later. Add to that the fact that – to me – The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the Dylan album that is stuck most in the time it was released, and one finds a song that has remained if not anonymous, then at least a little bit hidden.
But “Hattie Carroll” is worth a listen, especially when one considers that there’s probably not a better example of pure folk music – as defined by one very formal standard – in Dylan’s oeuvre. At a time when thousands of pieces of up-to-date information are available to us with flicks of our wrists and clicks of our fingers, it’s worth pondering for a moment that, not all that long ago, as these things are measured, significant or just fascinating events once were defined and remembered in large part through song.
And that’s what Dylan did when he wrote “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Acting as reporter and commentator, Dylan uses his song to tell us the news. One doesn’t have to work too hard to imagine how William Zantzinger felt about being immortalized in song; the Los Angeles Times piece I linked to earlier touches lightly on that. But I do wonder how Hattie Carroll would have felt about it.
I have three recordings of the song in my library: The original recording by Dylan from 1964; the version he performed during the tour of the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975, and a version released by Steve Howe, who is most likely best known for his work as a member of Yes and Asia. The track comes from Portraits of Bob Dylan, a 1999 collection of twelve Dylan tunes performed by Howe with a few other folks.
Howe’s version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – the place where we’ll start today’s otherwise random ten songs – has Howe on Spanish, electrical and steel guitars as well as on mandolin and keyboards. Geoff Downes is on keyboards as well, with Anna Palm on violin, Nathalie Manser on cello and Dean Dyson handling the vocal.
Ten (Almost) At Random, 1950-1999
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” by Steve Howe et al. from Portraits of Bob Dylan, 1999
“Big River” by Delbert McClinton from Second Wind, 1978
“How Can You Keep Moving (Unless You Migrate Too)” by Ry Cooder from Into the Purple Valley, 1971
“Shot of Rhythm & Blues” by Arthur Alexander, Dot 16309, 1962
“I Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye” by the Groop from The Groop, 1969
“If You’ve Got A Daughter” by Sailcat from Motorcycle Mama, 1972
“Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic 2781, 1971
“Anything” by the Vejetables, Autumn 15, 1965
“Glad I Knew You Well” by Livingston Taylor from Life Is Good, 1988
“I Ain’t Got Time Anymore” by the Glass Bottle, Avco Embassy 4575, 1971
A few notes:
Into the Purple Valley was Ry Cooder’s second solo album, and it settles neatly into a tour of the music of the Dust Bowl era, with Cooder showing his well documented artistry on almost any stringed instrument. In addition, he finds the centers of songs that were more than thirty years old at the time of recording, songs of dislocation, struggle and fear that might not seem so out of place in these disquieting times of our own.
Arthur Alexander was a country-soul artist from Alabama who left behind a fairly substantial collection of singles and LPs recorded between 1960 and his death in 1993. The most frequent mention of his name these days, though, is likely for his recording the original version of “Anna,” which the Beatles covered in their early years. (The Beatles’ cover version was released on an 1964 EP in Britain; in the U.S., it was originally released on Vee Jay’s Introducing the Beatles in 1963 and later on the 1965 Capitol LP release, The Early Beatles.)
There are evidently two groups that were called The Groop in the 1960s. This one is the Los Angeles-based group, not the earlier assembly from Australia that went to England. The L.A.-based Groop is credited with recording two songs that were included in the soundtrack to the 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy as well as recording one album. “I Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye” comes from that 1969 self-titled effort. I looked for Curt Boettcher’s name on the credits; it’s not there, but whoever produced the record listened to a lot of Boettcher’s work, I think. The track offered here sounds a lot like the Association.
The Wilson Pickett recording is one of those that I got in the Philadelphia box set I mentioned the other day. Pulled from the LP Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia, the single went to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 17 on the pop chart.
The Vejetables’ single comes from the other box set I mentioned the other day, the one that focuses on the music of the San Francisco area from 1965 to 1970. It’s relatively trippy folk rock.
The Glass Bottle’s single is a one-hit wonder by a group from New Jersey, and a wondrous one at that. A sweet artifact from my first autumn in college, the song – produced, oddly enough, by novelty artist Dickie Goodman – went to No. 36 during a three-week stay in the Top 40. I have a sense that the record – as familiar as it is to me – did better than that in Minnesota.
*The Los Angeles Times piece about Zantzinger has since been deleted. Note added November 16, 2011.