KOKO Rewind

Bob Dylan, Protest Songs and the Story of The Hurricane

By Johnny Mayo

In music folklore, it’s hard to think of an artist who has accomplished more than Robert Zimmerman aka the legendary Bob Dylan. For over 50 years, the singer, songwriter, poet, author, painter and actor has cast an almighty presence over not only the music scene but also the cultural axis of the world with his folk anthems about civil rights, justice and equality.

His award shelf stretches a mile long, adorned with Grammys, Golden Globes and even an Oscar. He has a Pulitzer Prize, numerous lifetime achievement awards and has been inducted into several different halls of fame.

Certainly, It can be argued with conviction that Bob Dylan is among one of the most influential performers of the 20th century.

The Bob Dylan story started at Gerde’s Folk City on April 16th 1962, when a 20-year-old immigrant’s son from a small port city in Minnesota performed for the first time in public. Among the original songs that he sang was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Never before had people heard something that described the plight of a generation in such a profound manner, a tune so "impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or is as intangible as the wind".

The protest song covered the issues of the sixties head on, with war, peace, freedom and civil rights all touched upon but never explained, turning many at the time to question the social philosophy imposed on them. It was embraced as one of the most popular anti-war songs of the decade and was even credited with empowering the civil rights movement.

In 1963, Dylan went on to release what has been dubbed one of the most prominent and significant songs ever written, the iconic ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’. The song was born out of Dylan’s frustrations with American political climate in America at the time and was made as a deliberate rallying call for change (something he supported again over 40 years later performing for the Barack Obama Presidential campaign).

Dylan played the song for the first time the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, delivering heartfelt couplets such as, ‘Your sons and your daughters, are beyond your command / your old road is rapidly agein' / please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand’. In typically eloquent fashion, he summarised the signs of the times in a way no one else could.

However not all of Bob’s protest songs were held with such high acclaim. In 1976, Dylan received a copy of an autobiography from Rubin Carter, a man serving a life sentence for a crime he claimed did not commit. Carter purposely sent his life story to Dylan because of his commitment to the civil rights struggle, and the singer immediately went to work on a song intended to clear the name of the boxer known as “the Hurricane.

To give you some background to the story, professional boxer Rubin Carter had been tried and found guilty of a triple homicide committed in a bar in New Jersey. On June 17 1966, two African-American men entered Lafayette Bar & Grill and opened fire, killing two patrons instantly and mortally wounding another. Petty criminal Alfred Bello was at the scene with an accomplice planning to rob the cash register when he spotted the suspects making their getaway in a white car, which just so happened to be similar to the car Carter was travelling in that fateful night. Carter, matching the description of the suspects, was pulled over later that night and brought to the scene of the incident.

In his car, ammunition was found of a similar calibre of the bullets used in the shooting. Back at the station, Carter and his friend were given a polygraph test on their account of events and were judged to be lying, however such tests can give false assumptions based on a number of different variables and thus deemed unreliable. They were both released later that day.

Several months later, Bello and his accomplice Arthur Dexter Bradley informed police (while under pressure from the authorities) that Carter and his friend were indeed the two black men he had seen fleeing the scene of the murders. Carter was re-arrested, charged and found guilty based on having similar car, carrying similar ammunition and being of the same colour as the suspects.

The testimony from Bello and Bradley was all the damning evidence the all-white jury needed to convict Rubin for life. Dylan summarised the miscarriage of justice in a line from the song: ‘How can the life of such a man, be in the palm of some fools hand?’

Dylan was determined to set the record straight and championed the cause for Carter’s release. The lyrics of ‘Hurricane’ paint the picture of a gentle giant: ‘Rubin could take a man out with just one punch, but he never did like to talk about it all that much / it's my work, he'd say, and I do it for pay, and when it's over I'd just as soon go on my way’.

However, many social commentators at the time accused Dylan of implying a significant amount of artistic license to the story, such as his claims of Carter being the number one contender, which were incorrect as the boxer was ranked around ninth at the time of his arrest. Also, Dylan failed to take into account Carter’s previous convictions, which included assault, robbery and numerous street muggings. These inconsistencies were pointed out to Dylan, and as a result the song has not performed in public for over 30 years.

After 10 years in jail, Carter successfully appealed against his conviction and won back his freedom. The authorities had declared that Carter did not receive a fair trial and that the previous hearing was based on racism rather than reason. Carter now works as a motivational speaker and spends his time defending the wrongly convicted.

As for Dylan, the grand old man of rock ‘n’ roll and folk is still writing, recording and performing original music with plenty of heart, soul and substance, all at the advanced age of 67. Long may he keep on keeping on.

Recommended Reading:
Dylan On Dylan
Jonathan Colt
(Hodder & Stoughton)

Recommended Listening:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan


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