Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Bob Dylan's heroes & villains

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.