Nota per chi non conosce l'inglese: in fondo all'articolo di Muir ho riportato una mia traduzione parziale.
Lies That Truth Is Black And White
by Andy Muir (published on the Judas! magazine)
Note: this article is based on the transcript of a talk
and therefore is both more personal and informal in
tone than is usual when dealing with such subjects.
The idea for this article did not start with Dylan alone,
instead it was films that raised questions in my
mind, and those questions were to do with historical accuracy (or inaccuracies) and whether or not
these are important in entertainment or art. The real reason for writing the article is that although the
questions kept presenting themselves, I was not sure of the answers. By writing this article, I am trying
to find out. I first covered this area at the fourth annual John Green Memorial day when I read out my
notes for this article. I would like to thank those present for their feedback on the day and since and
hope that they feel – as I do – that they have sharpened it.
My starting point is the film Braveheart which – despite
having much to recommend it - was spoiled for
me by disquieting changes to history. I am referring to such things as the introduction of the
‘pregnancy’ and other fabrications just for the sake of Hollywood and its low expectations of its
audiences_. It is not as if the story were not stirring enough, nor that the film had failed to captivate
while sticking close enough to historical fact (there is still a great deal of leeway for “invention” that
cannot be disproved after all). There was no need for the deliberate fabrication in what was
supposedly a historical epic.
Mel Gibson directed and starred in Braveheart and then
went on to make a film called The Patriot. I
have never watched this late film as, having already been disturbed by how history was falsified in
Braveheart, I heard that in The Patriot, it was distorted again. This “gut reaction” on my part alerted
me to the fact that historical inaccuracies in entertainment do bother me at some level. How deeply
though, I needed to find out.
Mel Gibson said about the misrepresentation of history
in the film, in his charming manner: ”I don’t
know what the Brits are worried about, it’s only a film”. That is the statement that started me thinking
and worrying. ‘It’s only a film’, but if it is a film that is staging a historical event or a series of historical
events - is it important if you twist history or not?
Naturally, I immediately started thinking about Dylan;
but, just before we go on to how the above
questions affect his songs, a few more words on films. There are too many examples of my theme
even to merely list without ending up with a book length publication. Nonetheless I would like to note,
in passing, that this kind of thing goes from wild invention and deliberate distortion to relatively minor
lies. The reasons for this range from political propaganda to lazy incompetence and include dubious
theories on “giving the audience what it wants”.
For example, I have not seen the film “Titanic” - it seems
I am all but alone in that - and I have not
seen it, partly at least, because of something that irritated me about historical inaccuracy. Like most
Scots I am very proud of being Scottish, and what annoyed me was that they changed a Scottish hero
into a coward. In the film there is a role of a Scottish coward; in real life this person died saving a
number of people. In the film, they changed him from a hero to a coward for “plot reasons”, something
they would not have done for, let’s say, an Irish or Jewish or Black man but because it was a Scotsman
they thought they could get away with it. As indeed they could and did. Some of the people behind this
gross lie did “make amends” by travelling to a celebration of the character’s real life heroism but how
many people who watched the film know that? Very few I would say – perhaps as few as noticed the
last line after the “credits” in the film “Hurricane”.
“Hurricane”, the song, will feature later in the
main, Dylan-based part of this article but I would like to
keep with films, for the moment. This film, supposedly a dramatisation of the Hurricane Carter story, is
one in which historical accuracy undoubtedly does matter because this is a deliberate staging of
something that happened to make a specific point.
Or, rather a staging of what the film-makers want you
to believe happened; the film is a disturbing
mixture of fiction and fact; with far more of the former than you would imagine. Much of it is a tissue
of invention and wild supposition; you might well wonder how they can get off with such a thing. Yet
one remembers Mel Gibson again and the slippery evasion of: “it’s only a film”. Legal escape is
supplied by, in very small writing, an admission at the very end of the film which states:
While this picture is based upon a true story some characters
have been composited or invented and a
number of scenes invented.
How many people will notice that, I wonder? Certainly
none of the reviewers did. The vast majority of
viewers accept the story as “historical re-creation”, as the “truth” – as they are clearly meant to. Yet
much of it is not true, and we are not talking minor details here; some of the things that are made up in
it are the racist cop who goes through his life chasing Hurricane Carter; the scene where Hurricane
Carter first gets into trouble with the authorities shows the young Carter saving a boy from a paedophile
attack. Where that comes from I know not, the first record of Carter’s trouble with the police is of him
mugging a man for $55 and a wristwatch. There is a connection between this and the film inasmuch as
both involve Carter hitting the man with a bottle. However one is a cowardly attack and the other a
heroic defence of another boy. Then there are the episodes that entangle fact with fiction and
supposition: the murder event itself and what the eyewitnesses said being a major example; the film
portrays of Carter as the happy and successful soldier (despite his record of court martial leading to a
discharge as “unfit for duty”), all of this brings to mind, as much of the film does, the phrase from
elsewhere on the same Dylan, album Desire “but the truth was far from that”.
The film appears as though it is presenting a “true story”
of “what really happened” yet it is not doing
that. It is a deliberate re-writing of history for the purposes of “entertainment”. Now, ‘Hurricane’ the
song by Dylan about Hurricane Carter, is shall we say inventive and stretches the truth too much (in
ways that the film lamentably built on) and has some (hopefully unintentional) inaccuracies. However,
it is nowhere near as guilty of fabrication as the film, and, there may even be – to presage a
controversial point dealt with later - an excuse for the inaccuracies inasmuch as if Hurricane Carter
was innocent, the song’s attempt to free him is to be lauded; there is no such excuse for the film. Still,
we will come back to ‘Hurricane’, the song, later; it is a most complicated and contentious case and
there are other songs to examine before then.
Firstly though, a slight digression to make an important
point: When you question the facts behind the
songs and films that I do in this article, you find people thinking of yourself as belonging to pro-racist or
pro death penalty camps. I must stress as much as one possibly can on paper that I am not, nor ever
will be, in either of those despicable groups. I do, however, worry whether historical accuracies are
important or not – no matter who or what the ‘truth’ is being re-invented for.
Let us to go back to the beginning, Dylan-wise, and trace
the story of these kinds of songs from the
early days up until 1975’s epic ‘protest song’. The story, if you will, ‘from Emmett Till to Hurricane
The reason that I go back to “The Death of Emmett Till”
is that Dylan made a very interesting
comment about this song back in 1964. He said then that:
"I used to write songs, like I'd say, 'Yeah, what's
bad, pick out something bad, like segregation, OK,
here we go,' and I'd pick one of the thousand million little points I can pick and explode it, some of them
which I didn't know about. I wrote a song about Emmett Till, which in all honesty was a bullshit
song....I realize now that my reasons and motives behind it were phony. I didn't have to write it."
These statements: ‘bullshit song’ and ‘reasons and motives behind it were phoney’ are interesting in
the light of what Dylan went on to write later in his life. Given the overall horror of the Emmett Till
story and the almost complete accuracy of Dylan’s song, it is one of the least ‘bullshit’ songs he’s ever
written, speaking strictly in terms of historical accuracy. It is, though, something other than factual
accuracy that his “bullshit” and “phoney” remarks refer to, it is his motivation in writing it.
As a song, it is just a piece of juvenilia with the occasional flash of something more deft; but ‘The
Death of Emmett Till” has only got one verse with any historical errors in it at all. And, given the sheer
racist brutality of what happened, you can forgive Dylan the inaccuracies. Just for the record,
however, they occur in one verse only, in the lines:
to stop the United States yelling for a trial,
two brothers they confessed they had killed Emmett Till
but on the jury there were men who helped brothers commit this awful crime.
The brothers didn’t confess and - at the time at least
- it was not known that there was anybody on the
jury who had helped them_. However, given the rest of the gruesome story, it was not really such a
terrible liberty to take.
Dylan was later to gently mock himself ("The moral of
this story, the moral of this song....") for bluntly
pointing out moral messages to his listeners with lines like:
This song is just a reminder
to remind your fellow man
Yet, even in the preachery "The Death Of Emmett Till", Dylan plays the US card quite cleverly (as he
does in the similarly righteous, "You Bin Hidin' Too Long"). The nation enters the song as an ‘easily
fooled but definitely on the side of the goodies’ character:
And then to stop the United States
of yelling for a trial,
The moral itself is that this incident must not be allowed
to sink into history because the problem is still
prevalent. Eventually, after all the moral high-handedness and pleas for justice and ethical awareness,
the young Dylan is not averse to appealing to patriotic feelings. It is an effective ending, pointing out
how easy it could be to stop these atrocities while reminding everyone how far America was from
being a land of the free or brave:
This song is just a reminder
to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today
in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all us folks that thinks alike,
if we give all we could give,
We'd make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
After having dismissed this as a ‘bullshit song’, Dylan
has, unsurprisingly, not played “The Death of
Emmett Till” since around the time he wrote it. which He does, however, regularly play “The
Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, which I think we would all agree is one of Dylan’s greatest
masterpieces. The development of writing from “Emmett Till” to, less than two years later, writing
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, makes Robert Johnson meeting the devil and selling his soul
in return for his guitar skills seem a more than plausible story because, whatever happened to Dylan
then at whichever crossroads, he went from writing propaganda pieces to masterpieces.
Another excellent thing about “Hattie Carroll” is that
it has brought the best out of Dylan’s critics.
Christopher Ricks has never been better than when he’s writing or talking about ‘Hattie Carroll; and
critic after critic have risen to meet the challenge of elucidating the brilliance of the lyrics. It is a quite
wonderful song, and I could go on at length the poetry and the genius of it; but that is not what the
article is about – it is historical truth I am discussing.
I listened to ‘Hattie Carroll’ for many years and believed
the whole story as sung to be true. Then I
saw the newspaper article that Dylan had based the song on and Dylan had clearly believed those
‘facts’ (there are no quotation marks strong enough to convey the irony of ‘facts’ as used in
Newspaperspeak, Orwellian double speak to the nth degree). I think we all know how ‘truthful’ tabloid
papers are, and it crossed my mind that all might not be exactly as I had always thought. However, it
never really occurred to me that the Hattie Carroll story was anything intrinsically other than what
Dylan sang. Then, Clinton Heylin’s Behind The Shades drew my attention to the fact that perhaps the
story was not all that it had seemed. Heylin sees Zantzinger [Dylan drops the “t” from the name in the
song] as the victim of the story_? This is what Clinton wrote about it:
Dylan’s portrait of William Zantzinger in ‘The Lonesome
Death of Hattie Carroll’ verges on the
libellous, depicting him as a privileged son who killed a black maid by striking her with his cane at a
Baltimore ‘society gathering,’ escaping with a nominal sentence because of his political connections.
The reality of the case is that the 24-year-old Zantzinger got drunk at a party and began tapping people
with a wooden carnival toy cane. One of the people he tapped was a 51-year-old barmaid with an
enlarged heart and severe hypertension. When she questioned his need for another drink, he became
verbally abusive. Carroll became very upset and, on returning to the kitchen, complained about
Zantzinger to a co-worker. She then collapsed and was taken to hospital where she died the following
morning. The extent of Zantzinger’s political connections was a grandfather who had served on the
State planning commission in the 30s.
Although you need not necessarily end up in total agreement
with Heylin’s interpretation. You begin to
discover a very different event from the one immortalised in the song when you start reading into the
official records. Zantzinger is unquestionably an odious person who has committed crimes, racially
based at that, since 1964. However, in the case of the tragic death of Hattie Carroll what was debated
in the courtroom was not at all what the sensationalist reporting - which Dylan based his song on -
depicted as having happened. That reporting gave a wildly inaccurate view of the prosecution case
whereas in the above extract, Clinton is, more or less. quoting Zantzinger’s defence. Unpalatable
though it may be to lovers of the song (it certainly is to this one), the defence case was the one that
was mostly proved in court.
As one of the three sitting Judges, D. Kenneth McLaughlin.
remarked soon afterwards: “The press
portrayed it as a man beating a woman to death when it was actually a woman suffering a stroke.”
There was even doubt right up until the end of the case
over whether or not Zantzinger had struck
Hattie with a cane at all. More than one of the prosecution witnesses said it had been broken earlier in
the evening. The judges finally decided he had ‘hit’ her with his carnival cane. I put ‘hit’ in speech
marks because this is where things begin to appear wildly different from the newspaper account(s) the
song is based on and the story has become to be thought of. The first accounts included the
eye-witness testimony from other barmaids who re-affirmed in court that Zantzinger had launched a
vicious blow on the right shoulder “hard enough to stun” Hattie.
However the state doctor (prosecuting) stated on the first
day of the trial that there was not a mark left
by the ‘blow’. The autopsy revealed she had died of a “huge (brain) haemorrhage”. The doctor went
on to say, however, that in his opinion there was a “definite relationship between the assault and the
onset of the symptoms”.
By “assault” Dr. Petty was referring to the whole incident,
that is; the insults as well as the ‘attack’
with the cane. These he said had caused an ‘emotional reaction’ that ‘aggravated the blood pressure’
which in turn ‘triggered the stroke’.
So the case progressed, with first and second degree murder
falling by the wayside and manslaughter
being debated. The “blow” that “slew” Hattie Carroll in the song was not what was being debated in
court; but whether or not the incident had precipitated the stroke or whether the hypertension and
enlarged heart the unfortunate Hattie suffered from would have claimed her life in any event. Doctors
–from the defence side– stated that Hattie Carroll could have died at any time and that it could not be
claimed that there was a physical connection between any alleged blow and her death; whereas the
medical experts on the prosecuting side stated there was a definite, or at least probable, connection no
matter whether she could have died at any moment or not.
As Deputy State Attorney Charles E. Moylan very movingly
stated: “If a person commits a wrongful
act, he is responsible for all the consequences….even if he shortens her life by as little as 20 minutes
(he is responsible for her death).”
So, Zantzinger was found guilty of manslaughter. Judge
McLaughlin's summing up detailed the crime
with these words:
“..when a person by violent action sets in motion a chain
of circumstances against her to die sooner
than she otherwise would have died, it would be unreasonable and possibly subversive of justice that
criminal responsibility should not attach”. The judges concluded that although “emotion itself cannot
cause death” it can precipitate it: “the blow struck by the cane was not of such a nature as to cause
physical damage to the deceased, but contributed to the death by creating in her a fear and
All of this is still far from the tabloid report entitled
“Rich Brute Slays Negro Mother of 10”; detailing
the “brutal beating by a wealthy socialite_ ” who “rained blows on the back and head of Mrs Carroll”.
Yet it is the sensationalist printing of a murderous slaying that has passed into “history”, Dylan read the
newspapers and believed them_ and he turned their stories into a masterly song that has in turn been
re-told in magazine, books and radio shows as though it were the gospel truth. More of all this some
other time, however as I am curtailing this investigation here because I have been informed a much
more detailed study of the story is already underway and I am sending my research documents towards
that; the twists and turns in the real court case of Hattie Carroll are well worthy of an in-depth study.
Once the field has been cleared again I will return to
the tale but I would like to leave you with one
other, rather strange, observation. This is that Zantzinger does not come across as particularly racist
when you have studied the accounts of the night. (Of course he was and is a racist but we mainly
know that from things unconnected with the death of Hattie Carroll.)
He did call Hattie Carroll “a black bitch” so my comment
seems initially “strange”. On the other hand
if you were to arrest people for saying such things, many of the football fans in the UK would be in jail
to say nothing of some of the players they support_ or, indeed, a depressingly large number of people in
Not that I am condoning Zantzinger calling her a “black
bitch”, of course, but what should be
remembered in the sense of this article, is that the people Zantzinger was most violent to that night
were white, not black.
Those we know of include his wife with whom he fought
on the dance-floor. Literally so, at that, they
struggled on the ground as he beat her head with a shoe. This disturbed neighbouring couples and an
altercation ensued between Zantzinger and a Mr. Biggs (it was he who claimed he broke Zantzinger’s
cane after they fought, a point corroborated by another witness though this was before Zantzinger had
encountered Hattie). Zantzinger also attacked the arresting policeman (his wife was by now fighting on
his side and bit the cop’s leg). In other words, the violent abuse that was going on was multi-racial –
not that it excuses anything that Zantzinger did - but it adds another different complexion to the story
behind the song. Finally there is the mystery of why William Zantzinger (who seems to have spent
much of his life thieving money from people) has often talked about libelling Dylan, but never has.
The major point for this article is this: if something
as clear-cut as "The Lonesome Death of Hattie
Carroll" starts to have grey areas, you begin to question everything. You start to think that Zantzinger -
who in a drunken night upset a maid of fragile health who later died - is not as guilty as the multiple
killing ("manslaughter in the highest degree) driver in “Percy’s Song”. In the one case Dylan rages
against inefficient sentencing, in the other he pleads heart-breakingly for leniency. In both cases he is
so convincing in his deliveries that it took years before I ever thought of the comparison and contrast._
Another one of Dylan’s greatest early protest songs (and
one that again has been very well written
about) is “Only a Pawn In Their Game”. This song tell the story of how poor white trash are
manipulated into working for corrupt politicians by being ‘fooled into thinking’ that they are better than
the blacks and, therefore, should have no complaints over their own miserable lives. It is one of
Dylan’s most compelling songs from this time because it does not preach as such; instead it opens up
for you a whole way in which the world works and evil flourishes. The idea itself is not new, of course,
and had been written about extensively in America before Dylan but it had not been put this way in
There are many quotes that show how accurate Dylan’s analysis
was. Some of these are available
from a marvellous website_ that picks such instructive examples that I am going to utilize some of their
quotations here. These come from Lillian Smith’s book, Killers of Dreams. She writes from the point
of view of the poor white trash that Dylan is singing about in the song:
… but we clung to our belief. Our white skin made
us better than all the other people and this belief
comforted us for we felt worthless and weak when confronted with authorities who had cheapened
nearly everything we held dear except our skin colour. In our land we could still be king.
This is the terrain of Dylan’s song. Then, talking
about politicians, Ms Smith goes on to write: they
needed poor whites to be their yes men, moral henchmen quieting the leaders’ uneasy conscience.
Like David playing on his harp to Saul, the rural whites sang the lies the dominant group wanted to
These are telling insights from somebody who lived it
and Dylan’s song brilliantly portrays the same
thing. His line describing the South politician preaching to the poor white man: you’ve got more than the
blacks, don’t complain brings both writer and lyricist come to the same conclusion:
It was only the poor whites who led them to love these
lies which they needed sorely to believe were
true. To be superior, to be the best people on earth with the best system of making a living because
your sallow skin was white made you forget that you were eaten up with malaria and hookworm, made
you forget that you lived in a shanty and you ate pot liquor and cornbread.
The song quite brilliantly depicts the same insights as
Ms. Smith and I am not here to criticise the song
at all as a song or its insights. I am here, though, to point out historical inaccuracies and, would you
believe it, this one is also, historically speaking, ‘wrong’.
The point of the song is that a mind-manipulated member
of poor white trash background shot Medgar
Evers in the back, not knowing in any real sense what he was doing or why. (The automotive
description in the opening verse is extraordinarily skilful in conveying this.) This may have seemed the
most likely explanation of the killer’s motivation for the cowardly murder, but it is not what happened.
What Dylan describes is terrible (and true, no doubt,
in a general sense but I am here concerned with
the narrower strictures of historical accuracy) but the truth of the killer and his background is even
more horrific; less insidious, perhaps, but even more invidious.
The person that shot Medgar Evers was called Byron de
la Beckwith, not exactly a poor white trash
name, you will have noted. He was once a fertiliser salesman by trade, which is perfectly apt for a
man who spent his life spouting bullshit. The point though is that he was not poor; he paid his $10,000
bail in cash.
He was not stupid either, at least not in the commonly
accepted meaning of the word. He ran for
Lieutenant Governorship of Mississippi four years after shooting Medgar Evers in the back and got
over 34,000 votes. All of which is not to deny his beliefs were idiotic in the extreme as well as being
evil to the core.
An out and out racist of the worst possible kind, he was
a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the White
Knights and what was known as the White Collar Klan (operating under the banner of the innocuously
named "Citizen's Council"), who used business means to oppress the blacks. (He also hated Jews and
indeed everyone other than those whom he saw as God’s Chosen people – white, right-wing Christians
only; and some of them he wasn’t too sure about.)
Byron de la Beckwith knew exactly what he was doing.
He worked to a political agenda. He liaised
with other political groups. When he eventually was caught and jailed years later, for another crime, he
had a car boot full of dynamite. You get the picture; this was a racist and bigot, a coward, a murderer
and a terrorist.
He died “unrepentant” as his demented followers still
like to announce. His prison cell was decorated
with Confederate and Lithuanian flags; he campaigned for a white only USA until his untimely (as in
far too late) death. A thoroughly evil person was de la Beckwith; but not poor white trash and not,
unfortunately, someone unaware of what he was doing and why .
In other words he was not 'only a pawn in their game'.
Dylan did actually sing about the exact kind of
thing that Byron de la Beckwith was in an unfinished two verse song called “Talking Devil” in 1963:
well sometimes you can’t see him so good
when he hides his head ‘neath a snow-white hood
and he rides to kill with his face well hid
and then goes home to his wife and kids,
I wonder if his kids know who he is.
Well he wants you to hate and he wants you to fear,
wants you to fear something that’s not even here.
He’ll give you his hate, he’ll give you his lies,
he’ll give you the weapons to run out and die
and you give him your soul.
That was the real person that killed poor Medgar Evers.
Unfortunately, though, the likes of Byron de la
Beckwith’s wife and kids knew precisely what their husbands and fathers were doing; they were
brought up to share the same beliefs. His kind still flourish, too. There are, disturbingly, a number of
websites and associations in America today who still hail him as a hero and martyr.
The recurring question that has hounded me is: if you
write about something that happened historically
and you are factually inaccurate, does it weaken the songs or not? Nothing will weaken "The
Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll"’s brilliant exploration of injustice and its poetic analysis of the
polarising forces in society for me. Still, I wish it was true all the way through. Nothing will change the
truth of how poor white trash are manipulated in "Only A Pawn In Their Game". It just so happens the
one example he has picked is inaccurate. Does it matter? Dylan himself worried about these things.
On his fourth album he repudiated his "protest phase"
in ringing and poetic terms. I was astonished
when I first heard "My Back Pages" as I had just grown to love all these wonderful protest songs and
here suddenly was the man who had written and performed them saying that he had been wrong, that
this was not what he should be writing and he was not going to sing about these kinds of things
I thought it was incredibly brave for an artist to have
written all these magnificent songs and then to
write this beautiful one repudiating them. So, this article would never have been written if Dylan had
left it there; but he did not. Years later a double-sided single with two versions of the one protest song,
"George Jackson" split Dylan fans and critics into two camps. Rolling Stone commented at the time
“The song immediately divided Dylan speculators into two
camps: those who see it as the poet’s return
to social relevance and those who feel that it’s a cheap way for Dylan to get a lot of people off his
Undoubtedly the "George Jackson" release was a very interesting
episode in Dylan’s career. Why did
he put it out?
Peter Doggett, writing in Judas! issue nine, commented:
To my knowledge, Dylan has never commented on George Jackson,
or his song, in any interview. Yet
there are clues within his lyrics as to the depth of his emotional and political involvement. For example,
the opening lines (“I woke up this morning/There were tears in my bed/They killed a man I really
loved”) suggest an immediacy of response unlikely in a man who had only discovered how passionately
he felt after reading a book. Factually and philosophically, in fact, there was nothing in ‘George
Jackson’ that betrayed any deeper knowledge of his subject’s life and beliefs than Dylan could have
learned from the six o’clock news. “They were frightened of his power,” he said of the prison guards,
“they were scared of his love”; but love, especially for his captors, was an emotion markedly absent
from most pages of Soledad Brother.
Michael Gray astutely described the song’s most revealing verse:
“Jackson says in one of his letters that, from now
on, he’s just going to divide people into the innocent
and the guilty. As Dylan re-states this, it is Us and Us, not Us and Them:
“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards.”
This, one might feel, is Dylan’s only authentic contribution
to the song; also the sentiment most at odds
with Jackson’s political philosophy."
George Jackson comes across in the song as one of the
most saintly people that Dylan’s ever sung
about. As is, to digress slightly from my main theme, Joey Gallo as portrayed by Dylan in "Joey". That
song is a total rewriting of history. I do not actually mind "Joey", despite the fact that he was a terrible
person, far removed from the figure in the song. But then I do not think the song Joey actually pretends
to be anything other than a myth and we all know what a myth is, don’t we, after watching Renaldo and
"Joey" is a myth making song. It is like singing
about Billy the Kid, another psychopathic killer for all
we know, or Jesse James and Robin Hood and all such other 'heroes'. Dylan is showing us how we
build up these myths round these outlaws. He also uses the song to open the second side of the album,
making it connect in the listener's mind (in those far off vinyl days) to the opening song of the first side.
Which brings us back to "Hurricane"
Now, Dylan’s "Hurricane" is nowhere near as bad at distorting
the truth as the film but it does have a
number of inaccuracies and stretching of the truth. But Dylan, as we know, can be affected by
something he reads or somebody he meets. One of the reasons that George Jackson does appear as
such a saintly figure, is that Dylan had read Soledad Brother and, as anyone who has read the book will
tell you, it is remarkably powerful. Obviously, it is from George Jackson’s point of view and you’ve
got to take it that this is his story powerful though it is. The same can be said for Hurricane Carter’s
The Sixteenth Round and, to a large degree, that book and his meeting with Hurricane Carter is what
Dylan bases his song. Clearly, therefore, you are getting the song from Hurricane Carter’s point of
view. If Hurricane Carter really was innocent I do not mind if Dylan did twist the truth. To get an
innocent man out of jail, I think, you could go to almost any length. Though whether Hurricane Carter
is innocent or not is something we will probably never know.
He eventually got released on grounds of procedural irregularities
(again, nothing like it is in the film and
nothing like it comes across in the song); it was eventually accepted that racism was involved in his
conviction and therefore he was, quite properly, released.
Indeed, one feels almost guilty of questioning his innocence.
As Stephen Scobie remarked in my
interview with him for Judas! issue nine:
What I do want to say is: whether or not he was guilty,
you have to look at the kind of work that he has
done in Canada since his release from prison, the kind of work that he has done on behalf of people
wrongly accused of murders in cases that are much, much more clear-cut than his, cases where DNA
evidence and things like that have absolutely conclusively proven the innocence of people who have
been found guilty of murders. The kind of work that he has done since he got out of prison seems to
me entirely admirable, and I find it really suspicious that there's still a strong faction that wants to
discredit Carter and discredit the kind of work that he's done, by arguing that he is in fact guilty. I think
it tends to come from people who are in favour of the death penalty -- and Carter, whatever his guilt or
innocence, has emerged in the last ten or fifteen years as one of the most charismatic and articulate
proponents of the argument against the death penalty. So I find it very suspicious that there is still such
a strong effort to discredit him.
Although in the same interview, he acknowledged that:
I think it's entirely possible that he was guilty; I think
it's entirely possible that he was innocent. I tend
towards the belief that he was innocent, but certain groups certainly have doubts…
I am not here to argue that one way or the other.
I have been reading about it for years and I am no
nearer knowing what to believe. Carter has done some wonderful things in recent years and he did
some terrible things when he was younger. If you want to read up on Hurricane Carter, there are
many, many websites about the case. Be very careful though, some of these websites say; "we’re not
racist" which is a very easy thing to say whether you are or are not. Similarly, others claim that they are
not pro-death penalty yet they read very much as though they are.
As for the song itself, I do not want to pull it apart
because, as I say, Dylan was convinced that Carter
was innocent. As with "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll", his motives in writing the song could
not be purer. Dylan was warned off the Hurricane Carter story by people like Kinky Freidman and
Joni Mitchell but he was convinced by Carter's version of the events and went ahead with his song.
Many people who warned Dylan off getting involved thought they were proven correct when, in 1976,
Carter was re-convicted in his second trial, Dylan did not say much at the time, he only had one
comment on it that I know off. It is a very interesting comment. He said about the second trial that
they "still knew what buttons to press".
So, clearly, Dylan was still convinced then that Hurricane
Carter was innocent and indeed he made his
story a central part of Renaldo and Clara. Dylan was clearly convinced and if you are convinced an
innocent man’s in jail, you would feel justified in "stretching the truth".
For the record, though, some of the things that are incorrect
in the song that affect historical accuracy
quite importantly include: Dylan claims that Carter was "far away in another part of town" – he was
not. He was stopped near the scene of the murder The song repeatedly states "one time he could
have been the champion of the world". Perhaps that once was true but by the time of the murders he
was not a contender; which is what is implied. Another liberty taken is the line about the wounded man
...looked up to him with one dying eye:
Said: "what you bring him in here for he ain't the guy
He did not; what he said was: "I don’t know" -
but that does not rhyme as well does it? This is not just
a flippant point. The noted scholar and Dylan fan, Christopher Ricks once spoke about Tennyson’s
famous line: “into the valley of death rode the 600”. Julian Barnes recalls this in Flaubert's Parrot.
…concerned 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. 'Into the
valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.’
Tennyson wrote the poem very quickly, after reading a report in The Times which included the phrase
'someone had blundered', He also relied on an earlier account which had mentioned '607 sabres'.
Subsequently, however, the number of those who took part in what Camille Rousset called ce terrible et
sanglant steeplechase was officially corrected to 673. 'Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred
and seventy?three'? Not quite enough swing to it, somehow. Perhaps it could have been rounded up to
seven hundred ? still not quite accurate, but at least more accurate? Tennyson considered the matter
and decided to leave the poem as he had written it: 'Six is much better than seven hundred (as I think)
metrically so keep it.'
Not putting '673’ or '700' or 'c.700' instead of '600' hardly seems to qualify as a Mistake to me..
Perhaps not, but it seems hardly fair on the 73 who are not immortalised, whose deaths are ignored.
Dylan also wildly romanticises the character of Carter
in "Hurricane" in the verse about the horses.
Hurricane Carter's real connection with horses was punching them unconscious as a way of showing
off. Not quite the same connection as in Dylan's song.
It is intriguing that Dylan, who had described "Emmett
Till", as 'bullshit' and 'phoney' should go on to
write songs like "George Jackson" and "Hurricane Carter"
When Dylan does decide that things are after all "black and white", he returns to the powerful weapons
of earlier writings. "Hurricane" is a vastly greater lyrical accomplishment than "The Death Of Emmett
Till" but a lot of similarities exist. The use of contrast for example, plus outright finger-pointing:
The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance
is a line that would be equally at home in either song. As would:
If you're black you might as well not show up on the street/'Less you wanna draw the heat.
....You'll be doin' society a favour
....And the all-white jury agreed
Although, the "Hurricane" story is from a different perspective than that of "The Death Of Emmett Till"
(black- falsely-guilty as opposed to white-falsely-innocent) the lines:
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land/Where justice is a game, would suit "The
Death Of Emmett Till" whose own:
And so this trial was a mockery,/but nobody seemed to mind.
would fit the later song.
To return to my question: does it matter that a film or
a book or a song based on a historical incident or
series of incidents reflects them accurately or is the “wider” artistic truth more important or simply the
entertainment value? It obviously matters to me or I would not be writing this article, and also to those
people who have told me that reflecting on my talk at Northampton has made them uneasy about these
Songs about Robin Hood and Billy the Kid and Jesse James
are one thing, long ago as they are; Joey
and Byron De La Beckwith though are recent and Zantzinger and Carter are still with us. Do the facts
matter or are the songs independent of history? Does the distance of time between when we hear the
songs and when the incidents took place change your answer? If so how many years does it need to
be? Is the time of Robin Hood so long ago that truth is irrelevant to the myth? Probably most people
think it is - but what about Billy The Kid or Billy Zantinger? Is there a difference between forty years
ago and one hundred and forty years?
All these questions from me; a strange way to end an article
except it is not really finished, I have
answered that it does matter to me but it is, I hope, an ongoing debate. One that I want you to continue.
Please send your answers to the above questions to the usual address or visit our website at _
HYPERLINK http://www.judasmagazine.com __www.judasmagazine.com_ where you will find this
article and a voting poll.
With thanks to Ron Turnbull, Clinton Heylin and Gerry Barrett and the John Green Convention
_ Though I take his reference to the odious creature as
poor William Zantzinger to be a joke on his
readership’s sensibilities utilising one of the song’s main strands of oppositional imagery.
_ Audiences moulded in their tastes by Hollywood and the media industry themselves
_ Or at least as was provable at the time , not for the first time Dylan’s words rang even truer in
hindsight than first they were heard
_ Rich beyond Hattie’s wildest imaginings though Zanzinger certainly was, “wealthy socialite” is going
a bit far. Tobacco farmer he was, not rich enough to get through the winter without a bank loan for ##
_ It he does to this day, recently having mentioned how anyone would be outraged by a “young man
beating up an old woman”
_ Lee Bowyer spat worse verbal abuse to an Asian lady in a MacDonalds not that long ago; though
longer ago than when he was involved in the case of the beating up of an Asian man.
_ This point was earlier made by Robert Forryan
E' UNA MENZOGNA CHE LA VERITA' SIA BIANCA O NERA
Muir premette che il suo articolo non è dettato
solo da un discorso legato a Dylan ma più in generale
dalla necessità di essere accurati quando si parla di un accadimento reale, sia nel mondo dello
spettacolo che in quello dell'arte.
Egli fa notare come in film come Braveheart e The patriot la realtà storica sia stata distorta e a volte
falsificata. Queste inaccuratezze - dice Muir - mi disturbano enormemente.
Mel Gibson, protagonista di quei film - prosegue Muir - rispondeva alle accuse di inaccuratezza dicendo "E' solo un film" e questo aveva spinto Andy a chiedersi se distorcere fatti storici anche in un film o in un'altra forma di arte sia o meno importante. Ed aveva subito pensato a Dylan.
Spesso - dice Muir - le distorsioni avvengono per propaganda o per incompetenza degli autori o ancora
per dare al pubblico "quello che il pubblico vuole".
Poi Muir passa a parlare del film Hurricane dicendo che
esso è pieno di invenzioni e di supposizioni
spacciate come storia.
Fa notare come alla fine del film fosse scritto che esso era basato su una storia vera ma che alcuni
personaggi erano stati modificati o inventati, così come molte scene.
Muir si chiede quanti abbiano notato quella scritta. Certamente nessuno dei recensori, sostiene Muir, la
maggioranza dei quali - dice - ha accettato la storia come "verità".
Poi Muir passa in rassegna alcune sequenze del film chiaramente inventate, come quella del poliziotto
razzista che dà la caccia al pugile Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, protagonista del film, o come quella in cui Carter salva un ragazzino da un pedofilo. Scene - scrive appunto Muir - completamente inventate.
Il film - prosegue - appare come la rappresentazione di una "storia vera" o di "quel che è realmente
accaduto" ma non lo è (e - dice Muir - il film gli riporta alla mente la frase dello stesso Dylan tratta dalla
canzone Joey : "...but the truth was far from that").
Il film Hurricane - conclude infatti Muir - è una deliberata riscrittura della storia con intenti di intrattenimento.
Poi egli passa a parlare della omonima canzone di Dylan
dicendo che anch'essa è piena di inaccuratezze (Muir si augura "non
intenzionali") e che distorce troppo la verità.
Non come il film però, dice Muir, che invece non ha scusanti.
La canzone, afferma Muir, se non altro deve essere lodata perchè, se Rubin Carter era davvero
innocente, essa tentava di farlo rimettere in libertà. Una scusa che appunto invece il film non ha.
Poi Muir parla di un altro brano di Bob Dylan, The Death
of Emmett Till, ricordando che lo stesso Dylan aveva dichiarato a proposito
di quella canzone che era una vera stronzata perchè all'epoca egli
era solito scrivere canzoni dicendo: "Ok vediamo cosa c'è che non
va in giro, ad esempio la segregazione razziale, e scriviamoci su una canzone...".
"Mi accorgo ora - disse Dylan - che i motivi che mi spinsero a scrivere quella canzone erano falsi. Non
avrei dovuto scriverla...".
Ma il termine "stronzata" - dice Muir - era da Dylan riferito non all'acuratezza della canzone da un punto di vista storico bensì alle motivazioni che lo spinsero a scriverla.
L'unica accuratezza di quella canzone dice Muir è nella strofa che recita:
to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
(perchè gli Stati Uniti cessassero di reclamare
due fratelli confessarono di aver ucciso il povero Emmett Till.
Ma nella giuria c'erano uomini che aiutarono i due fratelli a commettere questo orribile delitto)
Perchè in realtà i due fratelli non confessarono
nè si sapeva se qualcuno della giura li aveva aiutati.
Dylan - continua Muir - non suonò più The death of Emmett Till praticamente dai tempi in cui l'aveva
Al contrario, dice, egli suona regolarmente The lonesome
death of Hattie Carroll che - dice Muir - tutti
concordano essere uno dei capolavori di Dylan. Lo sviluppo da Emmett Till a Hattie Carroll - scrive
Muir - dà un senso alla storia di Robert Johnson che vende l'anima al diavolo in cambio dell'abilità nel
suonare la chitarra, perchè Dylan passò dallo scrivere pezzi di propaganda al comporre capolavori.
Potrei parlare ore della bellezza di questa canzone - dice Muir - ma non è questo l'argomento del
presente articolo, quanto la verità storica.
Muir dice che per molti anni egli aveva creduto che l'intera storia della canzone fosse vera ma poi
aveva letto l'articolo di giornale sul quale Dylan aveva basato la sua canzone e si era reso conto che le
cose non stavano così.
Muir cita qui Clinton Heilyn, uno dei biografi di Dylan, che sostiene che in realtà il William Zantzinger
dipinto da Dylan come un figlio di papà, che aveva ucciso una cameriera nera colpendola con il suo
bastone ad una riunione dell'alta società a Baltimora e che aveva evitato una condanna esemplare
grazie alle sue amicizie politiche, era semplicemente ubriaco quel giorno e se ne andava in giro per la
sala a dare dei colpi sulle spalle dei presenti con un bastone giocattolo di carnevale.
Una delle persone che subì il suo scherzo fu una cameriera di 51 anni addetta al bar, una donna che
soffriva di ipertensione e problemi al cuore, Hattie Carroll.
Tra i due ci fu un litigio verbale poi la Carroll tornò in cucina lamentandosi del comportamento di
Zantzinger con un collega.
In seguito fu colta da collasso e portata in ospedale dove morì la mattina dopo.
Le connessioni politiche di Zantzinger di cui parla Dylan nella canzone - dice Muir - erano costituite da un nonno che aveva lavorato per lo Stato negli anni '30.
Muir riporta poi la dichiarazione di uno dei tre giudici, D. Kenneth McLaughlin, che sottolineò: "La
stampa ha presentato il caso come quello di un uomo che ha picchiato una donna fino a farla morire
mentre in realtà si è trattato del caso di una donna che ha subìto un attacco di cuore".
Poi Muir dice che, stando agli atti dell'autopsia, il colpo alla schiena di Hattie in realtà non risultò aver
provocato danni, per quanto il dottore che la praticò sostenne che c'era una correlazione tra l'assalto di
Zantzinger ed i sintomi riscontrati.
Gli insulti di Zantzinger ad Hattie ed il colpo con il bastone avevano causato in lei una "reazione
emozionale" che aveva creato uno scompenso nella pressione sanguigna, scompenso che aveva poi provocato l'infarto.
I dottori della difesa - dice Muir - dichiararono che l'infarto avrebbe potuto colpire la Carroll in qualsiasi
momento e che non c'era alcuna correlazione certa tra il colpo subito e la morte di Hattie.
I dottori dell'accusa sostennero invece che la connessione ci fu e che non aveva importanza il fatto che
Hattie poteva morire o meno in qualsiasi momento.
L'avvocato Charles E. Moylan sostenne che: "Se una persona commette un atto ingiusto è responsabile
delle conseguenze di tale atto... e persino se Zantzinger avesse accorciato la vita di Hattie di soli venti
minuti egli era responsabile della sua morte."
Il giudice McLaughlin emise la sentenza dicendo che, anche se il colpo inferto da Zantzinger non era
stato tale da causare un danno fisico alla donna, esso contribuì alla morte creando in Hattie Carroll
paura ed eccitazione.
Muir dice dunque che tutto questo è molto lontano dalla realtà che i giornali presentarono ed alla quale
Dylan credette, giornali che parlavano di un "Ricco bruto che uccide una negra, mamma di dieci figli".
Giornali che spacciarono - dice Muir - la storia come se fosse verità del Vangelo.
Poi Muir dice che Zantzinger non risulta particolarmente razzista una volta che si sono studiati i racconti
di quella sera.
Egli infatti insultò Hattie chiamandola "puttana negra" ma se si deve arrestare la gente per una frase
simile, dice Muir , allora molti dei tifosi del Regno Unito dovrebbero finire in prigione.
Muir prosegue dicendo che con questo non vuole condonare a Zantzinger la frase "puttana negra" ma
vuole sottolineare che chi soffrì maggiormente la violenza di Zantzinger quella sera furono dei bianchi e
non dei neri.
Zantzinger quella sera aveva colpito sua moglie con una scarpa in testa durante un litigio e poi aveva
litigato con un tal Mr. Biggs, disturbato dall'alterco dei due coniugi, il quale gli aveva rotto il bastone di
Zantzinger aveva poi attaccato il poliziotto che lo stava arrestando.
Dunque - dice Muir - il comportamento violento di Zantzinger fu multirazziale e non diretto
esclusivamente contro la gente di colore.
Il che non lo scusa, prosegue Muir, ma conferisce un aspetto differente alla storia che c'è dietro la
Muir conclude dicendo che resta infine il mistero sul perchè Zantzinger ha spesso minacciato di
querelare Dylan per diffamazione ma non lo ha mai fatto.
Poi passa a parlare di Only a pawn in their game, una
delle più grandi canzoni, dice, tra quelle di
protesta dei primi anni.
Una canzone che racconta di come il povero uomo bianco viene manipolato dai politici corrotti, i quali gli
fanno credere che egli è meglio dei neri e che dunque non deve lamentarsi per le miserevoli condizioni
in cui vive.
L'idea - scrive Muir - non è nuova ma è la prima volta che viene trattata in una canzone in questa
Muir cita poi un libro di Lillian Smith e fa delle similitudini tra il libro e la canzone.
Muir dice che ci sono inesattezze anche in Only a pawn in their game. Il punto fondamentale della
canzone, egli scrive, è che un povero uomo bianco, manipolato da altri, uccide Medgar Evers
sparandogli alle spalle senza sapere cosa stesse facendo o perchè.
Non è quello che avvenne, sostiene Muir.
La persona che uccise Medgar Evers si chiamava Byron de la Beckwith che non era esattamente un
povero bianco, anzi era un uomo ricco che pagò in contanti la cauzione di 10.000 dollari per essere
E non era nemmeno stupido, dice Muir. Si era candidato per una carica politica nel Mississippi quattro
anni prima di sparare a Medgar Evers ed aveva ricevuto 34.000 voti.
Ed era membro del Ku Klux Klan e dei White Knights. Un razzista della peggior specie, scrive Muir,
che sapeva esattamente cosa stava facendo. Era un razzista, bigotto, codardo, assassino e terrorista
che in un'altra occasione venne trovato in possesso di dinamite mentre era in procinto di compiere un
In altre parole, dice Muir, egli era tutto tranne che "a pawn in their game" ("una pedina nel loro gioco").
Muir aggiunge che in realtà Dylan canta a proposito dell'esatto tipo di persona che Byron de la
Beckwith era in una canzone non finita del 1963, Talking Devil:
Well sometimes you can’t see him so good
when he hides his head ‘neath a snow-white hood
and he rides to kill with his face well hid
and then goes home to his wife and kids,
I wonder if his kids know who he is.
Well he wants you to hate and he wants you to fear,
wants you to fear something that’s not even here.
He’ll give you his hate, he’ll give you his lies,
he’ll give you the weapons to run out and die
and you give him your soul.
(Beh, a volte non riesci a vederlo molto bene
quando nasconde la sua testa sotto un cappuccio bianco come la neve
e cavalca per uccidere con la sua faccia ben nascosta
e poi torna a casa da sua moglie e dai suoi bambini
Mi chiedo se i suoi bambini sanno chi sia in realtà?
Beh, lui vuole che tu provi odio e vuole che tu abbia
vuole che tu abbia paura di qualcosa che nemmeno esiste
Ti darà il tuo odio e ti darà le sue menzogne
Ti darà le armi perchè tu possa finire col morire
E tu gli darai la tua anima)
Questo era Byron, dice Muir, e segnala che oggi ci sono
molti siti web ed associazioni in America che
inneggiano a lui come ad un martire e ad un eroe.
Poi Muir dice che Dylan stesso ripudiò la sua "fase
di protesta" nel brano "My back pages" e dice che
quando egli ascoltò questa canzone rimase stupito perchè era cresciuto nell'amore di quelle meravigliose
canzoni di protesta ed improvvisamente scopriva che l'uomo che le aveva scritte e cantate diceva di
essersi sbagliato, che non era il tipo di cose che voleva cantare e che non le avrebbe cantate più.
Muir dice che era incredibilmente coraggioso che un artista che aveva scritto tutte quelle magnifiche
canzoni ne scrivesse una altrettanto bella con la quale le ripudiava.
Poi passa ad analizzare il brano dal titolo George Jackson dicendo che in quella canzone Dylan sembra parlare di una cosa di cui sa ben poco se non che ha sentito la notizia della sua morte alla radio. E soprattutto, dice Muir, Dylan lo presenta come un santo, in questo sicuramente influenzato dalla lettura del libro Soledad Brother, un libro che è chiaramente il "punto di vista" di Jackson.
Poi Muir parla del brano Joey che definisce una totale
riscrittura della storia. Dice che essa è una sorta
di mito, una canzone che costruisce un mito, quello di Joey, il quale era invece una persona terribile; un
po' come cantare di Billy the Kid, un altro killer psicopatico, o Jesse James o Robin Hood e tutti gli altri
Poi Muir torna a parlare della canzone Hurricane, dicendo
che, pur non distorcendo la realtà come fa il film, è comunque
piena di inesattezze e modifica alquanto la verità storica. Anche
perchè - scrive Muir - anche in questo caso, come nel caso di George
Jackson, Dylan si fa influenzare dalla lettura di un libro "di parte",
ossia del volume The Sixteenth Round, la biografia di Carter.
L'ispirazione a Dylan venne dopo la lettura del libro e dopo l'incontro con Carter, e dunque - scrive Muir
- la canzone è scritta chiaramente dal "punto di vista" di Carter.
Muir precisa anche che a lui non importa se Dylan ha modificato alquanto la verità, se Carter era
Innocenza o colpevolezza che probabilmente non potremo mai appurare, scrive Muir, il quale sottolinea
poi il grande lavoro che Carter fece dopo essere stato rilasciato per irregolarità procedurali a favore di
innocenti condannati ingiustamente e battendosi contro la pena di morte.
Poi Muir dice che Dylan era stato messo in guardia da alcuni amici, come Kinky Freidman e Joni
Mitchell, in merito all'ambiguità del caso Carter ma egli era convinto della versione di Carter e dunque
proseguì nella sua opera a favore di Rubin, sia con la canzone, sia con il film Renaldo and Clara in cui la
vicenda di Carter ha una parte centrale.
Dylan era convinto dell'innocenza di Carter e se si è convinti dell'innocenza di un uomo che è in prigione
- dice Muir - ci si sente giustificati a "modificare la verità".
Poi Muir elenca una serie di errori nella canzone.
Dylan afferma che Carter "era lontano in un'altra parte della città", ed invece non lo era. Venne
fermato poco lontano dalla scena del delitto.
Poi Dylan scrive che Carter "...poteva diventare campione del mondo", cosa non vera all'epoca del
Un altro errore, dice Muir, è nella frase relativa al ferito che secondo Dylan guarda Carter che gli viene
portato dai poliziotti e dice: "Perchè lo avete condotto qui, non è lui il tipo...".
Muir dice che in realtà la risposta del ferito fu: "Non so se è lui".
Muir conclude l'articolo con la domanda iniziale: ha importanza
che un film o un libro o una canzone, basata su un avvenimento storico,
lo riporti in maniera accurata...? Oppure la più ampia verità
artistica è più importante, o addirittura semplicemente deve
prevalere il valore di intrattenimento?
Canzoni su Robin Hood o Billy the Kid o Jesse James sono una cosa, dice Muir, visto che parlano di
avvenimenti molto antichi. Ma quelli di Joey e di Byron de la Beckwith sono recenti e Zantzinger e
Carter sono ancora tra noi.
I fatti sono importanti, si chiede Muir, o le canzoni sono indipendenti dalla storia?