Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Lonesome Death" (letter to editor, New Yorker)

David Simon’s piece in “The Lonesome Death” of William Zantzinger (1/26/09) was too kind and considerate to my former schoolmate, and too harsh on Bob Dylan, my favorite songwriter. All through his high school years at Sidwell Friends School Billy Zantzinger had a reputation as being “rich greaser.” He drank, drove cars and fought to excess. He was a mean spirited young man and arrogant to a fault. Back then DC was pretty much a Jim Crow town. Most of us high school students of privilege accepted the entitlement and racial ascriptions of our whiteness without much question. But we knew a bully when we heard one. We recognized that Black folks were victims of discrimination. Sadly most of us remained passive bystanders.

In fact the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is one of the truly great American folk songs, and served as a great parable for the emerging civil rights movement. Yes, Mr. Dylan took poetic license with some of the historic facts of the criminal case, but he should not be accused of distorting the historical truth of this gruesome crime. The basic facts are that a very drunk and boisterous Zantzinger hurled much more than racial epitaphs at Mrs. Caroll at the Emerson Hotel. He smacked her several times with his toy cane because she was too slow to serve him more booze. The police report stated that Zantzinger had been drinking heavily and had been partying hard all that night. He had already verbally and physically abused several other hotel workers. His intent may not have been murder, but his actions showed fearless recklessness. That was classic Billy Zantzinger.
Today Mr. Zantzinger could have been tried for violating Mrs. Carroll's civil rights, even if the murder charges were lowered or dropped. That was then, this is now.

Dylan's provocative song was a powerful statement about the gross class and race inequalities existing then in our criminal court systems. Five years later, when I played Dylan's song to my high school students at Cardozo High School (Washington, DC), they had no problem parsing his meaning, even if his gravelly voice irritated them. They were the sons and daughters of welfare mothers and domestics. They knew well what time it was. They were amazed that a white boy would and could right such a powerful song, much less that a white teacher would play it for them in their high school classroom.

Billy's defense lawyers convinced the jury that Hattie Carroll was a very sick woman with well-documented cardiac disease. She died of a stroke and was not "slain by a cane." The jury believed the defense because Billy’s family did have close ties "in the politics of Maryland." His dad had been a state rep for one term. That was the least of their connections. They were affluent from real estate and tobacco, mostly along the eastern shore. They used their “high offices relations” to move the trial out of Baltimore to the far more racially biased eastern shore of Maryland, where a largely all white jury’s sympathies were clearly against the victim and the prosecution.

Honestly, I was astonished to read that Billy acknowledged to Mr. Simon that “I caused that woman death. I’m responsible. Me talking does nothing for that woman or her family.” Nice sentiment Billy.
How does that explain his persistent racist behavior years later? The Washington Post Sunday Magazine (citing the Maryland Independent report) reported in 1991 that Billy continued to collect rent from tenant farmers on old properties that he lost in bankruptcy court. He even went to court to sue for past-due rent. He won. Dylan’s chorus lyrics to his ballad remains true today: “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, Bury the rag deep in your face, For now is the time for your tears.”

Larry Aaronson, (SFS 1958)
Somerville, MA.
432 Norfolk St (1H)
Somerville, MA. 02143

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