Bob Dylan’s Hurricane: How The Legendary Star Risked It All To Stand Up For What’s Right
An inspiring act of bravery.
Protest and music have long walked hand in hand towards a better world. Many visionaries have said that it is the responsibility of the artist to recognize and report the times, to be a voice or reflection for the people and to enact real change in the world. Some of the greatest activists and people of the past century were indeed great artists, poets, laureates and more.
So it’s no surprise that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, songwriters of all time also did his fair share of work to extend the rights and freedoms of his fellow people. Bob Dylan will undoubtedly go down in the pantheons of history for his eclectic songwriting, purposeful poems and unusually distinctive vocals. However, his work beyond just the music is as impactful if not more.
The Hurricane Carter Case
It was the summer night of June 17, 1966 that would change Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life forever. At 3:15 AM, shortly after a grisly triple homicide, Carter and his co-accused John Artis would be arrested in Paterson, New Jersey. They would be detained and interrogated for 17 consecutive hours before being released, then rearrested weeks later. Both Carter and Artis would be convicted a year after that and sentenced to life at Rahway State Prison in Avenel, New Jersey.
At the time, Carter was a respected although somewhat controversial boxer and local figure. He ranked consecutively in the Top 10 Middleweight in the world just a year before the murders and was known for his powerful punching style, earning himself the nickname Hurricane.
Faulty Evidence, Weak Eyewitness Testimony
The entire testimony against Carter and Artis was based on weak eyewitness accounts, one of which came from a white man who was in the process of robbing a warehouse across the street as the murders took place. He also robbed the cashier’s till at the bar just minutes after the murders occured, then ran into police on his way out. It later came to light he was offered a reward by the police for his testimony which he never ended up receiving. Forensic evidence at the scene was also done without any experts present. All in all, the evidence against both defendants was barely enough to make a case, yet they were both sentenced to life regardless by an all-white jury.
It’s important to take into account the context and atmosphere in the United States of America at the time. Only a few years after the death of Malcolm X, and just a few years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, America was rife with political and social turmoil. The civil rights movement was in the crux of the largest battle it had seen to date and fighting to survive from all sides. Undoubtedly, racial tensions were at the highest they had ever been and were only continuing to rise. Standing by African-Americans at this time, despite being the humane and just thing to do, was still rare by white celebrities and the population in general. Many didn’t want to be seen taking sides in the face of such massive and encroaching institutions, and the norm was to stay quiet and focus on your work.
Bob Dylan Sheds Light on Hurricane Carter
Bob Dylan, however, is a different soul altogether. After the controversy surrounding the case was brought to light, Dylan met with Carter at Rahway State Prison and heard his story firsthand. No stranger to writing protest music, Dylan decided to take a shot at creating a song that would help fight for justice in the Carter case.
“Bob wasn’t sure that he could write a song [about Carter]… He was just filled with all these feelings about Hurricane. He couldn’t make the first step. I think the first step was putting the song in a total storytelling mode. I don’t remember whose idea it was to do that. But really, the beginning of the song is like stage directions, like what you would read in a script: ‘Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night…. Here comes the story of the Hurricane.’ Boom! Titles. You know, Bob loves movies, and he can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies,” an excerpt from Heylin Clinton’s book, Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited, explains.
The song would end up reaching #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and proved to be one of Dylan’s best tracks of the 1970s. Billboard declared it “the most powerful song Dylan has recorded in a decade, combining the ‘sensible hate’ he showed in ‘Masters Of War’ with a perfect expression of the kind of injustice heard in ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll.'”
Justice at Last for Hurricane Carter
The song would be released on Dylan’s January 1976 album, Desire to critical success and would garner support for Carter across the country. Dylan would go on to throw a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden raising over $100,000 to help Carter fight his case. Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr would join Dylan in doing a similar concert in Houston. Despite winning a chance at a new trial, both Carter and Artis were found guilty again and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail. It was 9 years later that a federal judge would order the release of both Carter and Artis, claiming racism played a major part in their initial conviction.
Undoubtedly though, Dylan’s push for freedom and the massive attention he drew to the case played a huge role in granting Carter his freedom. Carter would go on to create a non-profit to help falsely accused people such as himself gain freedom again.
It’s important to recognize the bravery of Bob Dylan in stepping forth and shedding light on injustices in this case. It’s difficult to admit, but the reality is that this case is one of thousands, and many young, innocent black men are continuing to be locked away for things they never did. Without superstars like Bob Dylan to shed light on these cases, it’s more likely than not that Carter would be lost to the system like so many other innocent people.
It’s easy to look away when you have everything. Stay out of trouble, away from controversy and mind your own business. In fact, that’s exactly how the system was built, to encourage you to do so. When people like Bob Dylan, someone with everything to lose, stands up for what’s right, it’s a reminder that we all have the responsibility to fight for those drowning in a system of injustice.