This Day in (Protest-Song) History

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“Matron Felled by Cane in ‘Old Plantation’ Setting” ran a 1963 headline in the Baltimore Afro-American. The report was about the murder of 51-year-old Hattie Carroll at the hands of 24-year-old William Zantzinger, who struck Mrs. Carroll at a costume ball in downtown Baltimore. Zantzinger, white son of Maryland’s tobacco farming elite, drunkenly lashed out at her and another black woman on the hotel staff that night, yet he received barely any punishment for his crimes.

The song Bob Dylan wrote about the case, appearing on the album The Times They Are a-Changin’ , was released 50 years ago today. Your editor’s local radio station, WYPR, ran a commemorative piece about it.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is an early Dylan song. It’s from his period experimenting with the Woody Guthrie method of editorializing musically about the news. Guthrie’s fellow Oklahoman transplants and fellow Red folkies, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, made it their business to encourage Dylan, along with Janis Ian, Phil Ochs, and other young musicians, to expose America’s ills in their music. The husband and wife team called it “social realism in topical-song writing.”

The couple were dismayed when Dylan, a role model to his peers, pivoted away from protest songs. It was a shattering development, they said in their joint memoir, Red Dust and Broadsides (1999):

“It caused scores of young song writers to abandon their original direction . . . (ballads, political commentaries, etc.) in order to try and become new Bob Dylans. They began writing involved, personal, introspective poetry and then attempting to set the result to guitar music with mouth harp interludes.”

This was no way to promote “the inherent goodness of the working class.”

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