The death of Trayvon Martin has given new life to an old Bob Dylan protest song about a 1963 racial murder, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” At least three different takeoffs are circulating on the Internet, all identically titled “The Lonesome Death of Trayvon Martin.” And yet, they all miss Dylan’s point. And their mistake helps illuminate the most troubling aspect of the Trayvon Martin case: the way in which it has divided Americans instead of uniting us.
Dylan’s song concerned a middle-aged black barmaid, Hattie Carroll, who was beaten to death by a drunken white reveler at a Baltimore charity ball in February 1963. Her killer, William Zantzinger, a wealthy, well-connected young tobacco planter, was sentenced to six months and fined $625. Dylan responded with a searing ballad recounting the incident, contrasting Carroll’s hardscrabble life with Zantzinger’s privileged world, ending with the verdict, letting his rage build slowly from stanza to stanza. He didn’t mention race. He didn’t need to.
The Trayvon Martin versions are all straightforward imitations, replacing the long-suffering Hattie with an idealized Trayvon and the homicidally arrogant Zantzinger with a snarling, racist version of George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer. Each rendition borrows its melody and narrative structure from Dylan. All share his chorus: “But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face — now ain’t the time for your tears.” All of them retell the story as a morality tale, evil Zimmerman against innocent Trayvon.
In Dylan’s telling, though, the real villain wasn’t the killer, Zantzinger, but the judge who let him off with a rap on the knuckles. The song was a protest against an entrenched caste system that protects some lives and crushes others. Zantzinger’s sheltered life, Carroll’s poverty and pointless death — these “ain’t the time for your tears.” Only at the end, when the judge hands down the outrageous sentence, does the balladeer conclude: “Bury the rag deep in your face — now is the time for your tears.”
To understand why it matters, consider our responses then and now. During the 1960s Americans answered the murders of Hattie Carroll and hundreds more like her not by weeping but by heading South to register voters. They went by the thousands to organize, to teach, to integrate lunch counters, schools and public buses or simply to march arm in arm down the highways of Mississippi and Alabama, sharing their shame and hope with an America that was still capable of shame and hope. William Zantzinger wasn’t the point. The point was to change an unjust system.
Trayvon Martin’s death, too, has brought thousands of protesters to the streets in Florida and around the country. This time, though, they are marching not for freedom or equal rights but for George Zimmerman’s head. As though Zimmerman were some walking embodiment of the system that imperils young men like Martin, not a hapless pawn lured into pathetic delusions of heroism and licensed by idiotic laws to act out his fantasies.