Bob Dylan's heroes & villains

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The racist killer who inspired one of his greatest songs has died. Rob Sharp remembers the others he immortalised

William Devereux Zantzinger, a white tobacco farmer from southern Maryland who killed a black barmaid in a drink-fuelled racist attack in 1963, died several days ago. Normally one would expect the life of such a criminal to be confined to the dustbin of history. But the work of one man means that Zantzinger's notoriety will persist for generations to come.

The young Zantzinger inspired Bob Dylan's 1964 song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". Dylan describes how Zantzinger "killed poor Hattie Carroll", a church-going mother of 11, beating her "with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/ at a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin" when she was slow to serve him. Hours later, Carroll collapsed, dying the following day. Zantzinger was charged with homicide, but this was cut to six-month's jail for manslaughter, a ploy to keep him from being sent to a state prison, where it was feared he could be harmed by black inmates. Dylan's song about the incident has been a staple of the artist's repertoire for many years and plagued Zantzinger until his death. Zantzinger told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes that the story of the song was a "total lie": "I should have sued him and put him in jail." The former farmer continued to commit racially provocative crimes. In 1991 he was convicted of a scam in which he charged black workers rent for property he did not own.

The song was a furious attack on social injustice that resonated through the decades, becoming a talking point for academics and cultural commentators. Dylan has tackled many issues during his career, but those songs in which he channels the rhetoric of protest to address emotive and politically charged subjects such as the civil rights movement and the barbarism of boxing remain among his most popular. Here, we tell the stories of some of the real-life people immortalised in Dylan's songs.



'Oxford Town' (1963)

James Meredith

James Meredith is one of the most famous figures of the civil rights movement. In 1961, he applied to the University of Mississippi, but was rejected on racial grounds. The following year, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People won him the right to a place at the university through the courts, Meredith arrived on his first day to be met by an angry mob of whites. A riot ensued, two were killed and 375 wounded. President Kennedy was forced to send the army to restore order.

Dylan responded rapidly. The lyrics to "Oxford Town" were published in November 1962. The track then appeared on Dylan's second studio album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, released in May 1963. "He went down to Oxford Town," sings Dylan, "Guns and clubs followed him down, all because his face was brown, better get away from Oxford Town." He continues: "Two men died 'neath the Mississippi moon." Somebody better investigate soon.



'Who Killed Davey Moore' (1963)

Davey Moore

Davey "The Little Giant" Moore, who was only five feet two inches tall, was crowned World Featherweight Champion in 1959. He held the title for four years, but in March 1963 lost it to the Cuban, Sugar Ramos. After conducting interviews with the press, Moore complained of headaches. He fell unconscious and was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with brain damage. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead four days after the fight.

Dylan immortalised Moore in a song that never appeared in any of his studio albums of the time, but was a popular part of his live repertoire. The track was not released until 1991, as part of Dylan's Bootleg Series. In the song, everyone is fair game for the troubadour, from the boxers, to the promoters, to a society at large that allows such a sport to take place. In each verse, Dylan assumes the persona, variously, of the crowd, the manager, gamblers, sports writers and Ramos, ending each with the same refrain, "No it wasn't me that made him fall, no, you can't blame me at all." Dylan is implying that all are in part to blame for Moore's death.

It finishes with the words of Moore's wife, Geraldine, upon hearing of her husband's death: "It was God's will".



'The Death of Emmett Till' (1963)

Emmett Till

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, went to stay with his uncle in Money, Mississippi. While there, Till and his cousin visited a grocery store owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. For a dare, Till reportedly made lascivious remarks to Carolyn, who was serving in the shop on her own. The exact details of what was said remain a mystery. When Roy returned, he was "greatly angered" by the story and set off to "teach Till a lesson". The boy was beaten, his eye gouged out, he was shot dead, and his body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and his fellow murderer, his half brother JW Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury, although the men later admitted to a journalist that they had done the deed.

The Dylan song was never officially released, although bootlegs of its live performance are in circulation. "If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust," sings Dylan, "Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust."



'Only A Pawn In Their Game' (1964)

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers was a Second World War war veteran and civil rights campaigner. Through his involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was heavily involved in campaigning for the conviction of Emmett Till's murderers. He was assassinated in June 1963. The suspect, a schizophrenic Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, was arrested but two all-white juries failed to convict him. He boasted to fellow members of the Klan that he committed the murder, but was not imprisoned until 1994, when new evidence came to light.

Evers's murder has been inspiration to numerous artists over the years, including Nina Simone, who featured him in her song "Mississippi Goddam", first performed in 1964. Dylan's song pulls no punches in its attack on segregation. Recorded for Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' album, it includes the lines, "The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid, and the marshals and cops get the same, but the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool."

'George Jackson' (1971)

George Jackson

George Jackson was a black, sometimes violent militant who was sentenced to "one year to life" imprisonment when he was 18 for armed robbery. Inside, he founded the political organisation the Black Guerrilla Family, and was charged but not convicted for the murder of a guard. In prison, he wrote two politically radical bestsellers, Blood In My Eye and Soledad Brother. In 1971 Jackson was gunned down, allegedly trying to escape from San Quentin Adjustment Centre. Dylan released "George Jackson" the same year. Dylan sang of a man whom authorities "sent off to prison, for a seventy-dollar robbery, closed the door behind him, and they threw away the key."



'Hurricane' (1976)

Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a petty criminal turned boxer imprisoned in 1967 for the shooting of two white men and women in a New Jersey bar. There were questions over Carter's trial, as one of the main witnesses, Alfred Bello, was a petty criminal who was committing a burglary at the time of the murder. Nevertheless, the crime was labelled in part racially motivated, and campaigners for Carter's release included Mohammed Ali and Dylan. He wrote "Hurricane" in response to what he saw as a gross injustice. The track was released on Dylan's 1976 album Desire, though some lyrics had to be toned down. One refrain, in which Dylan claimed Bello "robbed the bodies", was considered libellous. Carter was released in 1985. Bello was ruled an unreliable witness, and all charges against Carter were dropped.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot