A Bob Dylan ballad from Baltimore resonates this election year

Bob Dylan, the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, picked up the story of Hattie Carroll from a newspaper account and wrote a ballad about her death. The song has powerful resonance more than 50 years later because, while Dylan might have played loose with some facts, his protest against abuse and cruelty carries profound meaning in a nation engaged in a bitter and ugly presidential campaign.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” released in 1964, was based on an incident a year earlier in the long-gone Emerson Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

Carroll, an African-American woman, worked at the hotel’s bar. She was 51 years old, the mother of 11 children.

One night in February 1963, during a society event called the Spinsters’ Ball, a young white man in a tuxedo assaulted Carroll with a cheap, carnival-style cane, apparently because she did not serve him a bourbon fast enough. The man also used racial slurs against Carroll and one of her Emerson co-workers.

After being struck, Carroll leaned against the bar and was heard to say: “This man has upset me so, I feel deathly ill.” She died of a brain hemorrhage about eight hours later at Mercy Medical Center.

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