Chapter 13
Hattie Carroll

‘WHAT DOES DYLAN MEAN in the line ‘. . . or criticize all fears.’ What would someone be like who criticized all fears, and what would that have to do with a person who prematurely reacted to the unfolding tragedy of that song? Help!’

I usually don’t like questions like ‘what does the line so-and-so mean?’ but in this particular case, I’ve been tempted to attempt an answer. As I hear the song, the clue lies in two aspects. One is the preceding line: ‘You who philosophize disgrace’, i.e. the ones who take a purely rational point of view on disgrace and the injustices of society, the ones for whom the Hattie Carroll incident was a racial ‘issue’ – just a racial issue, a pretext for making a critical point about society, but without regard for the real issue, at least for the ones involved: the personal tragedy of Hattie. If one forgets that – which is easily done, even more so today that in the 60s, I think – whatever tears one has to shed, will to some extent be dishonest. And conversely: a response to ‘issues’ like this must be open to a personal reaction – ‘Fear’ – and whoever claims that one has to get beyond the personal – the ones who ‘criticize all fears’ – to view the case objectively, are wrong.

That’s the point that I think Dylan conveys brilliantly – and if the line is perhaps unclear on paper, the way he sings the song straightens out that unclarity. It may be that the ‘philosophical’ punch line is the last refrain with its ‘Now is the time for your tears’ (i.e. at the point when the legal system, the representative of the rational perspective on the ‘issue’, breaks down). But in most live renditions, it is the third verse that carries the song emotionally: that’s both where the fundamental social injustice is outlined, in the very concrete representation of the structural repression (‘[Hattie Carroll] never sat once at the head of the table, she [. . . ] emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level’), and the narration of the murder-by-whim is literally hammered down in the singing, which pungently emphasizes the internal rhymes of the text:

Got killed
by a blow,
lay slain
by a cane
That sailed
through the air
and came down
through the room,
and determined
to destroy
all the gentle.
And she never
done nothing
to William
Zanzingeeeeer . . .
(just writing this down sends shivers down my spine. . .)

When the final verse concludes that the rational, distanced observer of injustice finally can bring out his rag, that’s in a certain sense an unimportant afterthought: ‘we’ (the narrator and his listeners) have already seen the real point: that injustice can never be detatched from actual injustices into an abstract system. Besides, with the rag ‘buried deep in his face’, there’s little chance that he’ll see the point anyway.