(Occasionally, I’ll write more of a long-form song analysis/interpretation. Today’s my first. Hope you enjoy - questions and comments welcome, as always. Feel free to be harsh, ‘cause this is nowhere near complete.)

But you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face,
‘Cause now is the time for your tears.

This has always been a perplexing lyric for me; has a reputation for being one of Dylan’s most confounding, last I checked.

To say I came late to this song would be putting it too nicely. In fact, my earliest exposure to the tune came after hearing Billy Bragg’s “The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie” - same chords, same melody, same chorus, different verses, and separated by something like forty years.

Bragg’s version deals, naturally, with Rachel Corrie, a young woman whose death also sparked some controversy, although in a decidedly different set of ways. The death of Hattie Carroll, and the subsequent trial of William Zantzinger*, is a story of a different sort.

Listening to Bragg’s update of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, I was immediately struck by the lyrics to that chorus. That was all I needed for inspiration to seek out the Dylan original.

And once I found it, I listened. And listened and listened and listened.

Back then, I thought maybe Dylan was singing about, I don’t know, fake empathy, false compassion. My sense was that “disgrace” and “fear” are not things one ought to “philosophize” and “criticize” on about – perhaps, I thought, Dylan is classifying that kind of behavior as cold, detached.

The “now ain’t the time for your tears” – which ultimately turns to “now is the time for your tears” – seemed almost like saying: “you know you’re not supposed to cry until the song is over.” For a long time, I took that as a critique of contrived emotion. But I missed the point.

Now, there are things I’m noticing about the song, about what Dylan is singing, and I see it a hell of a lot more clearly.

For starters, something I want to mention. A big reason why the song is so effective is that nowhere in the lyric does Dylan refer to Zanzinger as white, or Carroll as black. When the song reaches its conclusion, with Zanzinger receiving only a six-month sentence, we’re meant to take that as a grave injustice, and we do – but our feeling that way has nothing to do with his whiteness or her blackness, but rather, more significantly: that “she never done nothing to William Zanzinger”. And while the song makes the point of Zanzinger’s privileges – he “owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres / with rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him / and high office relations in the politics of Maryland” – it never makes a correlation between privilege and race.

Dylan’s treatment of Hattie Carroll is similarly relatable: “a maid of the kitchen,” “who carried the dishes and took out the garbage / and never sat once at the head of the table / and didn’t even talk to the people at the table / who just cleaned up all the food from the table / and emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level”. Certainly anyone who looks at the true-life story of Hattie Carroll and William Zantzinger will notice their categorical differences – race, class, gender, age – but Dylan does something more difficult: he humanizes them.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level.

That last line there, too, is among Dylan’s most elusive. For a clue, I’m inspired to look at some of the verbs our characters get throughout the song (since, y’know, actions speak louder). Zanzinger gets killed, twirled, owns, “reacted…with a shrug”, snearing, snarling, walking (I take walking the way I think Dylan meant it, as a harsh reminder: a murderer’s on the loose); Carroll gets gave birth, carried, took out (the garbage), (never) sat (no, not once), (didn’t even) talk, cleaned, emptied, (she never) done (nothing). While Zanzinger is something of a monster, Carroll is portrayed as a remarkble, humble, gentle woman (remembering Zanzinger’s cane, “determined to destroy all the gentle”). Perhaps that’s the “whole other level” she was on: the sheer extent of her decency; which makes her murder all the more awful, all the more pointless.

But the injustices keep piling up.

In the final verse, Zanzinger stands trial – trial for a malicious crime, a crime he committed for no reason, he “just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’”.

Then, finally, the sentence is delivered, and it packs a wallop in the worst way: six months?!

Dylan leads us up to this revelation by singing about the whole justice system: the “courtroom of honor”, where “all’s equal” and “the courts are on the level”, where “even the nobles get properly handled” (referring back to Zanzinger’s privilege).

There’s an irony and a cruel joke in the description of the judge as he delivers the sentence: “he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished / and handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance / William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence”.

It was all a lie: the courts are not on the level, all is not equal, and no, the nobles will not be properly handled. Of course the “ladder of law” has a top and a bottom – and we know exactly where Zanzinger and Carroll fit into that. And it’s a cold truth.

Then, once more, the chorus – but it’s changed. (Everything has changed.) And it seems clear now: the reason Dylan sings that “now is the time for your tears” is because he was saving the greatest injustice, the real reason we ought to be crying, for that final verse.

The real coup de grâce, the ultimate revelation, is not merely that these injustices were done, no; it’s that the whole system is corrupted. Justice itself cannot claim to be just. Therein lies the tragedy.

Yet I still find myself perplexed by “you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears”. It’s not about false compassion, at least not in the way I was saying before – not about contrived feeling, not about emotion when you’re “supposed” to feel it.

But maybe it’s false in another way. As lonesome as Hattie’s death is, as terrible as Zanzinger is, and as unjust his meager sentence is, they all pale in comparison to that greater injustice, the problem that no one is adequately addressing: the world we’ve made for ourselves, a world which allows such horrific things to happen in the first place.

*Here, I spell his name correctly, since I’m referring to the real Zantzinger. When I call him “Zanzinger”, I spell it like Dylan did – referring to the character in Dylan’s song. Me, I consider the real Zantzinger and the character to be different enough to make a distinction, if only because I can’t claim expertise when it comes to either the factual human being or the factual events this song is based on. And frankly, that’s not what this post is concerned with, anyway. The song tells a story; it doesn’t give a history lesson. So, for the purposes of this post, that’s how I’ve considered Zanzinger and Carroll: as characters in Dylan’s story.

(For more information regarding the song and its basis in fact, I suggest reading this story.)


Today’s post is an older piece. I didn’t really want to post this, but...in the interest of full disclosure: this week, my laptop broke, so I’m doing all my writing in computer labs when I have the time, and usually that means I have time to do schoolwork and not much else. So, this will have to do until I get the damn thing fixed.

And sorry I can’t post the song; but if you don’t already have The Times They Are A-Changin’ you should really get on that, kid.

1 comment:

Clay B. said...

This is so great because i listened to this song three times in a row yesterday and was reflecting on it while listening to it.
The first time i heard it was on footage of him playing i think at the monterrey pops, and the bluntness of his social critiques were so palpable, and yet so light hearted somehow, at the very same time.
i think that you could infer from your analysis that the chorus is addressing the paranoiac and apocalyptic-proclaiming masses. the trend of post-modern pessimism and the collapse of human moral structure. People worry about human society collapsing in on itself, where people act out sociopath whims, their moral compass eschewed by a culture lost within the realm of selfish capitalism.
But throughout most of the song, Dylan reassures us that we, as humans, have a much stronger constitution than we often think. Now is not the time for your tears. People still help each other, and it can still be agreed that people are innately good.
Its not until the end that it is actually appropriate for the skeptics of society to cry, and for everyone to cry for that matter.
In a society where someone mindlessly kills another, has no remorse, and is let return back into an apathetic society. Now it is a grave time.
Maybe people are being corrupted by materialistic self-valuation. Maybe we do need to start looking within again.
Now, is the time for your tears. It is a dramatic statement that the critics of society have been legitimated by cruel acts such as that.
We must have faith that those who clean ashtrays on a whole other level have not been apathetically whittled out of society.....
etc, etc