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Christopher Ricks Tackles Dylan Tonight

Gotlieb Center stages talks by renowned Dylanologist

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Literary critic Christopher Ricks is giving a series of talks on major themes in Bob Dylan’s music this year, sponsored by the Gotlieb Center.

A 22-year-old folk singer, formerly known as Robert Zimmerman, was traveling back to New York from Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, after performing at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) gave his rousing “I Have a Dream” speech.

On the way, the story goes, the young performer, who was then calling himself Bob Dylan, read an article about the sentencing in Maryland of William Zantzinger, a wealthy young tobacco farmer who beat and killed a 51-year-old African American barmaid named Hattie Carroll, the mother of 11 children. While initially booked for murder, Zantzinger was convicted of manslaughter and assault and drew just six months in a county jail. The judges deferred punishment to give Zantzinger time to harvest his crops. Dylan decided to write a song about the case, mixing reportage, social justice, and poetry in what had already become a signature motif. On October 23, 1963, Dylan recorded “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” releasing it on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’.

“‘Hattie Carroll’ is one of Dylan’s greatest political songs, not so much because it has a political subject as because everything in it is seen under the aspect of politics,” writes Christopher Ricks, BU’s William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities, in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003, Ecco). “Here is a song that could not have been better written. Something perfect everywhere.”

Tonight, Ricks delivers the second in a series of lectures, sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, concerning major themes in Dylan’s music. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” will serve as Ricks’ vehicle to explore the legendary singer-songwriter’s political conscience. BU Today caught up with Ricks to ask why this song endures.

BU Today: You consider “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” one of Dylan’s greatest works. Why?
Ricks:
A great work of art doesn’t lend itself to a capsule answer, which is why there are a dozen pages about this song in my book on Dylan. But, for a start: Hattie Carroll is never reduced from a person to an occasion for indignation, the song never falls into cynicism, and Dylan moves past political conscience without ever leaving it behind.

In what ways does “Hattie Carroll” resonate in today’s political and social climate?

Songs need to sound, rather than to resonate, and today, politically and socially—as to injustices—is both an improvement on yesteryear and an insufficient improvement, as will always tragically be the case.

The song haunted Zantzinger his entire life, and some feel that Dylan libeled him or was unfair, especially since he continues to play it in concert. Do you agree?
I wouldn’t like to have been William Zantzinger, either before or after the song arose. But he shouldn’t have liked this, either. And the song is a vindication, not vindictive.

Dylan seems to have abandoned political/social justice songwriting, singing more about relationships and the experience of getting older. But in many ways the world seems as tumultuous and corrupt as in his heyday. Why do you think he is no longer commenting so forcefully?

Every artist needs not to be stuck inside of Mobile; needs to be mobile. On many matters he has had his say, has sung his song. It’s a good idea for him to be aware of this. Anyway, try the recent-ish “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” and “High Water” (on 2001’s Love and Theft) if you want to hear enduringly, ongoingly, about tumult and corruption. Lamentation? “Mississippi” (Love and Theft).



At your last lecture, you played the studio version of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” as well as him playing the same song live. How does the Bob Dylan on stage differ from the Bob Dylan in the studio?

That’s for you to say, or at any rate for me to echo the asking.

The second of Four Talks by Christopher Ricks, titled Political Conscience: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, takes place tonight, November 1, at 6 p.m. in the Richards-Roosevelt Room on the first floor of Mugar Memorial Library, 771 Commonwealth Ave. Free with BU ID. In January 2011, Ricks will tackle the theme of love in “Just Like a Woman,” and will close the series in March 2011, with the theme of damnation and salvation in “Slow Train.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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