The headline on last night's news story -- BOB DYLAN VILLIAN: WILLIAM ZANTZINGER DIES -- got me.
Reading those words, I was transported back to my teenage bedroom in West L.A., where, in the mid-'60s, my sister Lizzie and I struggled to out-do each other in climbing out of the bourgeoise morass of complacency of a country too-slowly turning.
To me, Ray and Aretha (and Reverend James Cleveland with his Voices of Tabernacle's "The Love Of God") were The Way Out, The Truth -- a get-out-of-jail pass from the about-to-burst box of conventionality (and bigotry) we all lived in. A blond-flipped, white, high school cheerleader, as soon as I got my driver's license (on my 16th birthday), I started driving myself downtown to the Central Avenue AME Church to drink in the redemptive music that I knew could inspire and heal me, even if I hung in the back of the pews, all out of place and self-conscious.
To Lizzie, the Way Out was Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. She played their albums endlessly, and, with her boyfriend (the son of a glamorous movie star -- this being Beverly Hills and all) in the Dylan role, she played Joan -- they dueted. She looked like Joan -- the long, straight, dark, center-parted hair; the serious face bent over the guitar. I did not look like Ray's Margie Hendricks, which put me at a disadvantage, but, if you wanted to be metaphorical about it, perhaps made my identification more yearning.
I was sure I had won. "Hard times, talking about those hard times...who knows better than I?" How could you beat that? Our mother had attempted suicide a couple of times and been -- just barely -- saved by shock treatments. Our father disinherited me because he'd fallen in love with and married my aunt (incest, of sorts), who had haughtily made mincemeat of my insecure preadolescent femininity. There was a frightening homicide attempt between this gang, on our front lawn, which Lizzie and I had witnessed. We had no money, and we took in boarders: nudists, alcoholics, (fascinating) young beatnik actresses, semi-pedophiles. So when Ray sang, "Hard Times," and Aretha sang "The sun's gonna shine...," I related!
Then Lizzie came into my room one day and played "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." It was early Dylan at his best, and she explained the song to me: William Zantzinger, a rich, arrogant, young Southern bigot had killed a servant in his house (this was the story, back then) -- a much older, hardworking woman named Hattie Carroll -- by beating her with a cane because she served his food too slowly. A whole generation of young white teenagers, living far from the South, got their social studies and history from music in those days: from obscure radio stations at the ends of the dial and from record stores you had to drive far away to find. The difficulty and esotericism was part of the intensity of the lesson. And for each of us -- even those, like me, who liked other music better -- there was a Dylan line that laid it all out, writing on a secret blackboard what had to be done to change America. "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a can that he twirled around his diamond ring finger" was that line for me, courtesy of my little sister.
I still thought I'd won. There was no one like Ray! There was nothing like soul and gospel music. But, soon, everything melded, and the secret social studies lesson was all over the news; and the music and the activists -- and then the citizens -- pushed America to change. And finally America did change.
Over the last half dozen years I've been lucky to get to know, through my work, people -- like reporter Jerry Mitchell and filmmaker Keith Beauchamp -- who've been going back and finding the culprits of old, unsolved Civil Rights era murders, and bringing them to the attention of authorities. who have sometimes been able to bring them to justice. You could almost believe that many of these cases were being ferreted out, and righted -- however late in the game, however much of a lifetime the killers had lived off the hook, in freedom. But Zantzinger got through the system early and easy. According to yesterday's abcnews.com, "William Zantzinger, a wealthy Maryland landowner whose fatal beating of a black barmaid was recounted in a Bob Dylan protest song of he 1960s, was buried Friday. He was 69....The tobacco farmer served six months and was fined $500 for manslaughter in 1963 for striking the 51-year-old barmaid with his cane for taking too long to serve him a drink... Zantzinger was allowed [by a Maryland court] to delay the start of his sentence two weeks so he could harvest his tobacco crop." He was just "playing...having a good time" with the cane beating, he said. After his release, he became a foreclosure auctioneer, and in 2001 he told a Dylan biographer, Howard Sounes, "[I] should have sued [Bob Dylan] and put him in jail" for using his name.
As we prepare for the Inauguration not too far from his grave, I think about this man's pathologically genial defense of his crime, and his combative umbrage toward Dylan -- tendered in 2001, no less, when the country had already profoundly changed. How could he have remained not just unchagrined but defiant?
Rest in peace NOT, William Zanzinger. You don't deserve peace. But at least you lived long enough to have witnessed this election.