Clips & Pix: Bob Dylan/Hurricane

Hurricane has been among my favorite Bob Dylan songs for a long time. I’ve always dug the amazing violin playing by Scarlet Rivera, which gives the tune a very distinct sound. And while the lyrics take some creative liberties, I think Hurricane represents excellent cinematic story-telling and is one of the most compelling protest songs I know.

Co-written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy, Hurricane is the opener of Dylan’s 17th studio album Desire that came out in January 1976. The above clip is from Dylan’s appearance on the American live concert TV series Soundstage in December 1975.

Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an American middleweight boxer who along with his friend John Artis was wrongfully convicted of a triple murder that occurred at a bar in Patterson, N.J. in 1966. After he had been sent to prison, Carter continued to maintain his innocence and, helped by a writer, published his autobiography in 1974. Knowing about Dylan’s civil rights engagement, Carter had a copy sent to Dylan.

rubin carter and bob dylan
Bob Dylan visiting Rubin Carter in prison in December 1975

Prompted by the autobiography, Dylan visited Carter in prison in December 1975. He and Levy wrote Hurricane thereafter, based on the book and news accounts. Dylan also raised money for Carter’s legal defense during two shows of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour at the time.

Following the autobiography’s publication, two of the prosecution’s key witnesses changed their testimony. In 1976, Carter’s and Artis’ convictions were overturned, but only a few months later, both men were found guilty again during a second trial. Appeals continued. Artis was paroled in 1981. In 1985, a U.S. district judge in New Jersey exonerated Carter, noting the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”

Carter was finally set free in November 1985, after 19 years in prison. He relocated to Toronto, earned Canadian citizenship and became an advocate for people who like him had become victims of judicial injustice. From 1993 until 2005, he was executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Carter passed away from prostate cancer in April 2014.

After Carter’s second conviction, Dylan had moved on and never performed Hurricane live again. Apparently, Carter was still grateful for everything Dylan had done for him and did not hold the artist’s apparent lack of interest after his second conviction against him.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

15 thoughts on “Clips & Pix: Bob Dylan/Hurricane”

    1. I think I know which word you mean. While I don’t like it either, it’s important to understand the social context, which I suspect the person who complained may not have known.

      Dylan used the word to describe sentiments some African Americans supposedly expressed about Carter, perhaps because he had a speech impairment. Whether that actually happened is another question, since the lyrics took some artistic liberties.

      African Americans definitely use the term among each other, and when they do, it’s not considered offensive, at least in the U.S. It only becomes an issue when it’s a white person saying it to a black person.

      One can certainly question to what extent the distinction makes sense. Undoubtedly, it would be best to avoid using any racially charged language in the first place.

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  1. One of Dylan’s more interesting songs musically- due to the violin playing of Scarlett Rivera as you mentioned…. of course the politically correct crowd is looking for anything to get upset over- all a person has to do is listen to the song and do a little research to understand the context in which the word was used. Ridiculous non sense.

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      1. I agree with you- this wasn’t used in a casual way- it was used in telling the story. It’s kind of like say a tv show like The Sopranos- it wouldn’t be very convincing if they used PG language. No one is ever going to accuse Dylan of being a racist and have one nugget of proof.

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  2. Auch wenn der Song in einigen Passagen recht stark von der wahren Geschichte Rubin Carters abweicht, traf und trifft die Kernaussage leider immer noch voll ins Schwarze:
    “How can the life of such a man/ Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?/ To see him obviously framed/ Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land/ Where justice is a game.” Sehr interessant dazu auch der Roman „The Devil’s Stocking“ von Nelson Algren.

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    1. Sehr gut gesagt. Die Kernausage des Songs ist sicherlich leider bis auf den heutigen Tag relevant, und vermutlich nicht nur in Amerika!

      Es ist ja schon bemerkenswert, dass Dylan die Namen der wirklichen Akteure im Stueck erwaehnt hat. So wie ich gelesen habe, war man bei dem Plattenlabel Columbia sehr besorgt, dass dies zu gerichtlichen Prozessen fuehren wuerde. Wohingegen Dylan vor der Veroeffentlichung noch ein paar minimale Aenderungen am Text vorgenommen hat, wurde er ja dann 1976 auch tatsaechlich auf Verleumdung von Patty Valentine verklagt.

      Dylan soll ihre Erwaehnung damit erklaert haben, dass er den Namen “huebsch” fand. Valentines Klage wurde letztlich abgewiesen. Ich bin mir nicht sicher, wie dies im heutigen Amerika ausgegangen waere, wo sich Leute ueber alle moeglichen verrueckten Dinge auf Millionen Dollar verklagen!

      Ausserdem denke ich, dass “Hurricane” eine gute Illustration von Dylans manchmal etwas eigenbroedlericher Art ist. Nachdem er bemerkenswerte Anstrengungen unternommen hatte Carter zu unterstuetzen, die ja nicht nur das Schreiben des Songs, sondern auch das Sammeln von Spenden fuer seine rechtliche Verteidigung beinhalteten, schien er Carter nach dessen zweiter Verurteilung ploetzlich vergessen zu haben. Seit dieser Zeit hat er wohl “Hurricane” nie wieder live gespielt.

      Wohingegen man sicherlich kuenstleriche Gruende dafuer anfuehren kann, wie etwa die Notwendigkeit einer Violinistin um das Stueck vorzutragen oder vielleicht den komplexen Text, finde ich dies schon etwas merkwuerdig. Carter auf der anderen Seite scheint dies Dylan nicht nachgetragen zu haben. U.a. gibt es ein Foto von Carter und Dylan aus dem Jahr 2013, wo die beiden laechelnd nebeneinander stehen, wobei dies bei Dylan eher etwas wie ein verkrampftes Grinsen aussieht! 🙂

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  3. A great song. When it came out, my then brother-in-law – reflecting on Dylan’s recent mellowness and lack of protest songs – said, “We’ve got Dylan back again.” Everything works in this song – music, lyrics, feel, pissed-off-ness. As to the ‘n’ word, it raised zero feathers here. Everyone knew Dylan’s stance on racial matters and he was using the word that Carter’s folks were using on him. I used the word recently in my series on Aretha. It was a word slung at her and her manager and if you don’t put its ugliness out there, then it has no impact and is = pardon the expression – whitewashing the truth.

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    1. Definitely a great song addressing a very important subject that remains relevant to this day, though in retrospect, one could question whether Carter was the best poster child.

      Don’t get me wrong, with so many indications of foul play on the side of the police and the prosecution, I’m not doubting his innocence. But based on what I read, Carter wasn’t exactly an angel. He had a criminal record and apparently a reputation for a violent temper.

      I think it’s safe to assume there were many other African-Americans with wrong convictions, except they didn’t get help to write an autobiography and all the attention Carter received.

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      1. True enough. But bear in mind, the only question is not whether he had a bad temper but whether he committed a triple murder. And yeah, it didn’t hurt that Carter was a prize fighter so there was a larger megaphone. But in a larger sense Dylan helped to bring to light a level of injustice that was (and is) still happening here.

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