Monday, July 16, 2012

From A to Zantzinger (Revoking Bob's poetic license)

I was fooling around with my long term recall and a recollection came to light concerning a story about a fellow named Zantzinger who was living on a sailboat in Maryland.  Now that name strummed a chord in my head and out rolled a 1963 protest song called "The Lonesome Death of . Hattie Carroll." Well as every folk boomer knows, Mrs. Carroll was "killed" by William "Billy" Zantzinger with "a cane that he twirled 'round his diamond ringed finger."  OK now, what do you see? 24 year old Billy Z bashing the 53 year old bartender to the ground with one of those blackthorn sticks with a heavy knob like TV's  "Bat Masterson" used to keep order in the wild west.  I bet I'm close, right? Well that is just what I thought and the fact there were racial implications involved made me mad enough to learn the song and even perform it. It is interesting to me at least, that Bob Dylan claims the tune was inspired by his recent introduction to the work of Kurt Wiell and Bertolt Brecht.  I don't see that myself, and I'm pretty knowledgeable about their work.  In fact what I infer from reading about Dylan is that he showed up in NY as a blank slate with a talent for turning a phrase and as he was turned on to the work of  different players  and the philosophy of what was hip he exploded as a major talent. These days he says he can't write like that.  I believe him and after researching the facts behind "The lonesome death..." and finding his version wanting, well I just look at Bob Dylan as a writer who does not allow the truth to get in his way.  Pretty harsh, huh?  Still the story needed to be told---so

Meanwhile back in Baltimore: Zantzinger shows up at a exclusive affair hammer knocking drunk and equipped with a 25 cent novelty cane made of bamboo. A toy he had picked up at some event earlier his wife) and acting like a general drunken ass.  In a attempt to gain some bourbon, he tells a black server to get out of his way, calls her a nigger and swats her with the cane for good measure. Now he confronts Hattie behind the bar and when she does not respond quickly enough he calls her a nigger as well and taps her on the arm with the toy cane leaving no mark or wound.
He leaves the area.  Some minutes pass and the shaken Mrs, Carroll tells her coworker that she is feeling ill: "sick to death"  She is taken to an area by her friends so she can recover, but her condition worsens and she is taken to hospital where she dies of a ruptured vessel in her brain.  The autopsy shows the 53 yo mother of 11 was suffering from athrosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries" and hypertension, so while she was not beaten to death with a cane, the stress of her encounter most likely paid a heavy contribution to her death.

Billy Z got a 6 month sentence for involuntary manslaughter.  Rumor had it that his sentence was light because a longer stretch would have put him in the big house, a prison with an overwhelming black population where it was feared he would be at risk. (Big Time)  Personally, I think they should have given Billy the chair, but I also think there was a good topical song to be written without the hyperbole of Dylans piece; a tune that is more H.L. Mencken than Kurt Weill.

PS for Billy: he was in trouble for taxes and slumlording and died in 09 to no ones great sorrow. Hattie Carroll slipped into a coma in the company of her friends.  One wonders whom had the more lonesome death

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