Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Time For Our Tears: Today's Other 50-Year Anniversary

This is neither a political blog nor a "current events" blog.  In fact, I very rarely write about cultural events as they're happening.  But today I was struck by serendipity and felt compelled to write a few words about today's other big fifty year anniversary in American race relations.  THE big anniversary is, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech (available in full here), and it's received the due attention from the news media ... when they took a breather from reporting on Miley Cyrus's ass that is.  The other big anniversary came to my attention as I was shuffling through Bob Dylan songs on my iPod (for no particular reason) and stumbled upon this classic that I hadn't heard in years:

Curious about the veracity of Dylan's lyrics, I googled "Zantzinger" for more background on the factual background behind this song.  As it happens, I learned that the sentencing of William Zantzinger for the killing of Hattie Carroll, the event that inspired this song, occurred exactly fifty years ago today, August 28, 1963.

More below the fold ....

Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" tells the true story of wealthy white tobacco farmer Zantzinger who, on a drunken rant during a party, assaulted Carroll, a black hotel employee and mother of eleven children, with a toy cane over her perceived slowness in pouring him a drink.  The blow from the cane coupled with the woman's agitated emotional state over Zantzinger's verbal abuse cost Carroll her life the next day.  The story caught the attention of a 22-year old Dylan, who banged out the lyrics to "Lonesome Death" in a matter of days and began performing it live mere weeks after Zantzinger began his short stint in prison.  It's been covered by many artists and it's a regular staple of his live performances to this day.  It's always been one of my favorite Dylan songs for the searing simplicity of the lyrics and the haunting repetition of the chorus, teasing throughout that "now's not the time for your tears" as he recounts the details leading up to the trial, until the final sucker punch at the end -- the revelation that Zantzinger received a six-month sentence for Carroll's death -- when it is finally time for our tears.

It was an incredibly coincidence that, on the very same day as this sentence came down, hundreds of thousands of people were gathered in D.C. to hear Dr. King give one of the most famous speeches in American history.  Juxtaposed against the highest ideals of America's best intentions, encapsolated perfectly in the four simple words "I have a dream", was the thudding reality of America's structural shortcomings and deep-seated injustices. Perhaps what is most amazing is that Dylan's brutal takedown of Zantzinger (which haunted the man till his death in 2009) missed one of the most disturbing, telling details of the whole affair -- that is, among the reasons for Zantzinger's shortened sentence was the court's concern that if he went to state instead of county prison (which a longer sentence would've necessitated), his life would have been at risk from the animosity of the other black prison inmates there.  This is according to a 2004 article by Ian Frazier at Mother Jones magazine available here -- an excellent piece upon which I rely heavily for this post.

Given the starkness of this juxtoposition and all it says about the context in which Dr. King gave his speech, I'm surprised that I've been unable to find any articles out today about Zantzinger's sentencing or Dylan's song.  I highly recommend the Mother Jones article linked above, and there are certainly other writings out there exploring the cultural impact of "Lonesome Death" (such as this article posted a few months ago on a UK website, and this lengthy piece by Paul Slade, which I have not yet read).  For purposes of this blog, I will just leave with this observation on the power of art:  Whatever else Dr. King brought to the table in terms of strength of character, dedication to the cause, and perserverence against the odds, the man had a way with words.  "I have a dream."  That speech sings.  It sings like the incredible cadence of Dylan's lyrics:
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane     
That sailed through the air and came down through the room, 
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle. 
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
Righteousness and moral fortitude will only get you so far if you don't know how to package the message in a way that captures the heart as well as the head.

I believe there is an element of jadedness in contemporary culture, a readiness to mock celebrity tribute songs or artists trying too hard to write something "important."  Folks like me grew up with the "Very Special Episode" phenomenon of 1980s prime time television, and we know PSA's are all bullshit.  "The more you know", "knowing is half the battle", "let the chickens be free!"  Personally, I'd cringe at the thought of some 22 year old trying to grab fame with a lyrical indictment of George Zimmerman or some other "pulled from the headlines" affair.  Yet, this cynism (well deserved though it may be given some of truly horrible "political" artistic statements out there) shouldn't keep us from recognizing when medium and message converge into something powerful, something that captures a moment and gives us an ideal to strive towards (or a cold slap in the face over our failures along the way).

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