“In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence”
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan
Talk about striking at the heart of the times.
1964. America is changed forever by the Civil Rights Act. Segregation is ended and the voting booths are opened to black men and women.
But civil rights workers are still being killed in the South. The problem is not over. The justice system in the south is still mostly comprised of white, conservative lawmen. Well-connected old families like the Zantzingers still seem untouchable.
Enter Dylan. In this, the song’s last stanza, he buffets us along on the faint hope of justice; Finally, will a change come to the south? An almost operatic drive builds up, the judge is framed behind his cloak, the courtroom draws breath.
Then that last line crashes in, and you feel anger. Actual anger. You want to write a letter by the Tardis Royal Mail to the court of Maryland to get Zantzinger retrialed.
In ‘No Direction Home’ by Martin Scorsese, a biopic of Dylan’s career, you see footage of Mr Bob sitting on the back of a wagon, singing this song to the local farm workers. He rides those words like he’s steering a horse into battle. Not only does he tailor the lyrics to directly affect his audience, but he slams it home by dragging out the chords. He repeats that same, hypnotic melody, driving it louder and louder… until he drops it down with last line. The audience are in raptures.
The power of the song all comes from the incredible sincerity with which Dylan delivers those words. It’s unabashed, unfaltering, and unequivocal. And almost never matched. As homework, name me one record in the past three decades that speaks with such sincerity on a political subject matter. You won’t find one. Not since Punk has popular music been able to express a clear point of view without self-effacement or ironic detachment.
William Zantzinger died only a couple of years ago. Perhaps the spirit of rebellion that made him infamous died with him.