Bob Dylan, the renowned singer-songwriter, found himself in a fortunate position when he released the song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in 1964, as revealed by his biographer. The song, a powerful protest against racial injustice, narrated the tragic story of Hattie Carroll, a Black woman who was fatally assaulted by a white bar patron named William Zantzinger. Despite the song’s impact, Bob Dylan’s biographer, Clinton Heylin, claimed that the legendary musician was lucky he didn’t face a lawsuit over the controversial composition.
Unveiling the Controversies Behind Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was inspired by a news article that detailed Carroll’s untimely demise. Intoxicated and belligerent, Zantzinger verbally abused Carroll before striking her with his cane. Carroll, visibly disturbed by the incident, collapsed and later succumbed to a brain hemorrhage.
Although Bob Dylan penned the song based on this tragic event, Heylin pointed out several factual errors within the lyrics. Dylan misspelled Zantzinger’s last name as “Zanzinger” and inaccurately depicted the charge against him as first-degree murder instead of second-degree, as initially filed. Furthermore, Heylin contested Dylan’s portrayal of the direct connection between Zantzinger’s assault and Carroll’s death, questioning the validity of attributing such blame solely to him. Heylin believed that Zantzinger could have pursued legal action against Dylan.
“He’s very lucky that he didn’t get his a** sued,” Heylin expressed, as reported by Rolling Stone. “I love the song, but it’s a shameful piece of writing.”
Zantzinger’s Resentment: The Tense Relationship Between Bob Dylan and the Convicted Assailant
Interestingly, William Zantzinger himself, who was ultimately convicted of manslaughter and served a brief prison sentence, held strong negative sentiments towards Bob Dylan. In Howard Sounes’ book “Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” Zantzinger referred to Dylan as a “no-account son of a b****” and expressed regret for not taking legal action against him.
Bob Dylan’s Legal Battles: From “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to the Controversy Surrounding “Hurricane”
While Dylan managed to evade a lawsuit over “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” he encountered legal trouble later in his career regarding another song. The track “Hurricane” faced scrutiny when Patty Valentine, a key witness in the murder trial of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, claimed that Dylan’s song portrayed her as a liar. However, a federal court dismissed Valentine’s lawsuit, ruling that her testimony was accurately reported and not offensive to ordinary sensibilities.