Gilbert: The lonesome death of William Zantzinger

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(HOST) Recently commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert was surprised to read about the death of a 69-year-old man, whose name reminded him of a song and something Martin Luther King said at Dartmouth in the early ‘sixties.

(GILBERT) I knew the name – William Zantzinger – from Bob Dylan’s haunting ballad "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." Frankly, I had assumed the man was either fictional or had lived long ago. The song’s first three lines outline the facts. And as literary critic Christopher Ricks points out, the lyrics sound like "a newspaper item with a cadence."

William Zanzinger (sic) killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.

That was February 9, 1963. Zantzinger was twenty-four, wealthy, racist, and drunk. Hattie Carroll was fifty-one, a bar maid, and mother of eleven children. She was one of three hotel employees that Zantzinger assaulted that night.

Dylan’s ballad has four stanzas; the first three end with this refrain:

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

In the final stanza – and in real life – Zantzinger received a six-month sentence. That’s when the refrain changes:

Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.

As Ricks points out, "There can be no grosser injustices than those perpetrated by the law itself." Indeed the judges deferred the start of Zantzinger’s jail sentence to give him time to harvest his tobacco crop.

Ricks calls this song one of Dylan’s greatest – pointing to its excruciating sadness, its "curbed indignation," and the way it avoids melodrama and sentimentality. He points specifically to Dylan’s subtle use of rhyme and meter.

Nowhere in the song does it say he was white and she was black. That is simply understood.

There’s one line in the song that hints that Zantzinger is also, in some way, a victim.  It says that he is [quote] "Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle."  Yes, the word "determined" conveys his malicious intent – his willfulness in destroying a poor woman who, as the song says elsewhere, "never did nothing to William Zanzinger."  It’s that word "doomed" – that Zantzinger is somehow doomed himself that brings to my mind something Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said nearby, at Dartmouth College in May 1962 about the pernicious effect that racism and segregation have on whites as well as blacks and the redemptive power of justice and love.  He said "Our victory shall be a double victory.  We shall win our opponents in the process."

This song appeared on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They are A-Changin’.  If these days we needed even more proof that race relations in this country have changed – surely today William Zantzinger would receive more than just a six-month sentence.

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