Musikwissenschaft – Vol. 4

An appreciation of some of the finest performances in musical history.

 

Today we will be looking back at one of rock’s most powerful protest songs – Bob Dylan’s Hurricane.  Released as a single in 1975 and selected as the opening track on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, the song is about the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African-American professional boxer.  In 1967 Carter had been convicted, along with another man, John Artis, of a triple murder in a New Jersey bar.  Upon receiving Carter’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472 eight years later, Dylan (who was already committed to the Civil Rights movement) believed that Carter had been a victim of racism and profiling which had led to a false trial and conviction.  At the time of the folk musician’s involvement, Carter’s case had already gained increasing public support, most notably from fellow boxer Muhammad Ali who had dedicated his 1975 victory over Ron Lyle to the incarcerated fighter.  After visiting Carter in prison, Dylan got together with producer/songwriter Jacques Levy and the pair decided to tell his harrowing story to the world.

 

The story begins in June 1966 when, during a robbery at the Lafayette Bar & Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, two black males – one carrying a shotgun, the other a pistol – started shooting.  The bartender and a male customer were killed instantly, a severely wounded female customer, Hazel Tanis, died from her injuries approximately one month later and another male customer, Willie Marins, was left blinded in one eye following a gunshot wound to the head.  Later that night, Carter and Artis were stopped by police because their vehicle matched the description given by second floor resident Patricia Valentine.  Neither Tanis nor Marins identified Carter and Artis as the gunmen.  However, the state supplied two eye-witnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, several months later and both identified Carter and Artis as the armed men spotted fleeing the bar.  Bello and Bradley had been lurking in the area after attempting a burglary and it was their testimonies, along with some rather questionable pieces of evidence, which resulted in the conviction of the two men – a double life sentence for Carter, a single life sentence for Artis.  The case re-opened in 1976 following the recantation of Bello and Bradley that appeared in The New York Times and in light of the public support for a re-trial.  After another hearing littered with allegations of faulty evidence and inconsistencies both men unbelievably found themselves convicted for a second time.  This time the prosecution argued that the murders were motivated by racial revenge for the killing of a black bar owner earlier that night in Paterson.  Artis was eventually paroled in 1981 and four years later, in 1985, Carter’s convictions were finally set aside and he was released on a writ of habeas corpus.  Upon granting the writ, the district court judge stated that the convictions had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure”.

 

It would be very easy to hear Dylan’s Hurricane and immediately decide that Carter was an innocent man, accused and convicted of a crime that he did not commit.  However, there are many details that Dylan and Levy got wrong or omitted from the song.  For example, Carter was not found “far away in another part of town” (he was pulled over by police just minutes away from the scene of the crime) and Dylan also failed to touch on Carter’s past; he was an intimidating man with a volatile temper and had previously spent time in prison after committing a series of assaults and robberies.  One thing that Carter was definately not: “number one contender for the middleweight crown”.  At the pinnacle of his career he was ranked as the #3 contender after many early-round knockouts but after losing on points to Joey Giardello in 1964 his boxing career rapidly declined and he had dropped to #9 in the rankings.  Also, all of the quotes and verbal exchanges featured in the song were a product of Dylan’s imagination – none were actually said in real life.  It must also be remembered that despite being released, Carter was never actually found innocent of the killings.  With regards to the 1999 film The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Denzel Washington, it has been accused of providing an inaccurate and misleading depiction of Carter’s life and of the case.  The fact that Carter was heavily involved in the making of the film has led many to believe that as propaganda for the deification of Carter, the film succeeds brilliantly, but as an honest portrayal of the events surrounding the Lafayette Bar & Grill murders, it fails miserably.

 

Despite the few innacuracies and heavy use of poetic license, Dylan’s controversial protest song brought a range of emotional expression never before seen in popular music.  Guilty or not guilty, Hurricane is a brilliant example of how song can be a powerful vehicle of social protest in the face of injustice.

 

Bob Dylan – Hurricane

 

 

– Load It, Check It

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