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The Story Behind The Song: ‘Hurricane’, Bob Dylan’s ultimate and definitive protest hit

Art has been a powerful tool of protest since the time of its existence. It has used its freedom of expression and ability to travel across borders to educate minds, cultivate the spirit of enquiry and instil courage to raise voice against socio-economic-political ills. It has been the strongest enemy of governments, religious and other institutions alike in the occasion of malpractices. Fascist rulers down the history, realising its potential to influence masses, have tried to harness it to benefit their propaganda. Though temporarily successful in doing so, art has always gained more strength in slavery to eventually snap the shackles and break free.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ is one such protest song. Released as part of the album Desire in 1976, it was based on a real-life story of the middleweight boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, an athlete who was falsely charged with murder, imprisoned and tried in court. What was his fault? He was black. This incident is just another example of the gross generalisations that people of colour are forced to battle against. It’s very convenient of the white colonisers to ignore the years of exploitation which resulted in extreme poverty in the colonised countries and pushed people from communities like the African-American. Even those who worked hard to live a dignified life became the victims of racism time and again. Dylan’s lines, “When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road/ Just like the time before and the time before that/ In Paterson that’s just the way things go/ If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street/ ‘Less you want to draw the heat” perfectly summarises the hypocrisy we have been talking about.

Carter and a man named John Artis were framed by the police for a triple murder that took place in a Paterson, New Jersey, bar in 1966. Bob Dylan came to know about this incident much later in 1975 when Carter published his autobiography The Sixteenth Round. Shaken by the story, which surprisingly didn’t cause enough stir over nine years, Dylan went to visit Carter, “an innocent man in a living hell,” in Rahway State Prison. Dylan was so overwhelmed that he wasn’t sure how to write a song. However, collaborated with Jacques Levy and the two wrote the lyrics in a short period of time as the emotion poured out. Later in an interview, Levy while contemplating his role said, “I think [Dylan] liked the idea that I could tell a story. Bob is not that good at telling stories. He’s got a lot of good stuff in his songs, but they don’t usually add up to a story.”

Though he had written a few other topical protest songs such as ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Masters of War,’ the lyrics of the song for Hurrican is indeed different from Dylan’s general pattern of abstract themes and complex forms. The lines are rhyming and it’s written in a narrative mode. Levy said, “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.” However, some lines from the original lyrics had to be discarded since Columbia record’s lawyers were concerned that the references to the two star witnesses of the case, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, as having “robbed the bodies” could result in a lawsuit. The song was recorded again with the changed lyrics but still found itself in trouble when Patricia Graham (Patty) Valentine, an eyewitness, took legal action believing that it portrayed her as one of the conspirators. The charge was soon dismissed by a federal district court.

The song combining the passionate rage against injustice, of feeling “ashamed to live in a land/Where justice is a game” with fuel for the race-related issues of the time in its tale of two black men cynically framed and convicted by white cops, white witnesses and an all-white jury grabbed the public imagination. Dylan played a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden which raised $100,000 for Carter’s defence in December 1975. In 1976, just a year later, both Carter and Artis were granted a new trial. However, in yet another damning reflection of the justice system, it failed. It wasn’t until 1985 when Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter’s release and the granting of a writ of habeas corpus to Carter, commenting that the prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure”.

There are some songs that we are happy to relate to and then there are some which make us wish it wasn’t still relevant. Dylan’s “outlaw” song belongs to the second category. It’s been 45 years since the release of this song and still, nothing has changed. Racism is seen to be raising its ugly head over the world on a daily basis. Despite strong worldwide protests such as the Black Lives Matter movement following the recent tragedy of George Floyd’s death, there is no reason to live under the illusion that racism is withdrawing its footsteps over the map. Because parallelly, the racist, homophobic, chauvinistic ex-president of the United States has still won 232/538 seats in the recent elections and a member of House of Lords in Britain thought it was fine to typify the new vice-president of The US Kamala Harris, as “the Indian” in his tweet which said: “What happens if Biden moves on the Indian becomes President. Who then becomes Vice President?” We can only hope that art keeps leading the way and that the protests grow stronger and stronger until a time when we’ll not require them at all.

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