The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #21 “Hurricane”

Written by April 13th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane/the man the authorities came to blame/ for something that he never done/Put in a prison cell, but one time he coulda been the champion of the world!”

Hurricane is a song unique to Bob Dylan’s vast body of work. Driven by Scarlet Rivera’s frantic violin fills and Rob Stoner’s spidery bass lines, the eight-plus minute tune is like “Hattie Carroll” on steroids. Both songs deal with racial injustice, but only “Hurricane” actually helped get someone out of jail, even if it did take 12 years.

“Hurricane” unspools the story of the false imprisonment of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was incarcerated for the murders of three bar patrons in Paterson, New Jersey. The song is the introductory track to one of Dylan’s most diverse and mystical albums, 1976′s Desire, and came at a time where no one expected Dylan to write another protest song (a Dylan-esque reason, if there ever was one, to write one.)

From its evocative opening lyrics (“pistol shots ring out in a bar room night”) to its righteous ending (“but it won’t be over till they clear his name,”) “Hurricane” functions like a real live detective story. It’s a song that peppers the listener with rich details and impolite truths, many of which are enough to make the hairs at the back of your neck stand up:

“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 wanna draw the heat.”

“The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye/ says ‘Wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!’”

“And though they could not produce the gun, the D.A. said he was the one who did the deed, and the all-white jury agreed.”

Harking back to the days when he used to rip his song ideas from the headlines of newspapers, Dylan masterfully sums up and dramatizes Carter’s story, and also manages to embarrass the system by coming off smarter than every lawyer, cop, and jury on the case. To live outside the law, you must be honest.

Another aspect that makes the absurdly wordy “Hurricane” unique: it’s the only Dylan song to contain curse words (unless I’m forgetting something). It also finds the one-time civil rights icon owning the “N word” like he was Patti Smith or Chuck D (“…and to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger. No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”). Another line could have come directly from Dylan’s “Masters Of War,” Freewheelin’ period, so similar is the language:

“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.”

“Hurricane” was the product of a writing session with playwright Jacques Levy. Levy, who was also a clinical psychologist, co-wrote every song on Desire save for “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Sara.” The collaboration was short lived: Levy’s contributions only appear on Desire.

Dylan was inspired to write “Hurricane” (whose chord progression in the verses echoes the one used in “All Along The Watchtower”) after visiting Carter in prison in 1975 and reading his autobiography, “The Sixteenth Round”. His circus-like Rolling Thunder Revue tour doubled as a way to stump for Carter’s amnesty. “If you’ve got any political pull at all, maybe you can help this man get out of jail and back on the street”, Dylan introduces the song on Live 1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5.

The story of the Hurricane has a (relatively) happy ending. He was freed in 1988, and all charges were dropped against him. Carter now works as a motivational speaker, and is the Executive Director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.

You won’t hear Dylan play this song live anymore, (after the Rolling Thunder Revue, he dropped it from his set list entirely) but you can hear it in the 1999 movie Hurricane. Indie-folk troubador and one-time Dylan tourmate Ani DiFranco also recorded a version, which you can hear here.

  • Brad

    You won’t hear him play it anymore because Carter’s guilt came to light. Musically, I think this is one of Dylan’s best. His voice is perfect; the arrangement is perfect. The only thing wrong with the song? The words. There are bright spots, but generally speaking, it’s a sloppy piece of writing (“Where they tried to turn a man into a mouse” immediately comes to mind). As complete songs from DESIRE, I would favor “One More Cup of Coffee,” “Oh, Sister,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Sara.” And from the sessions, I’d favor “Abandoned Love.”

    That said, this is a difficult pick for me to fault – for the simple reason that it is Dylan singing and arranging at his very best.

  • Scott

    I agree with the previous comment. Never felt comfortable about some of the phrases in this song, just for their lack of inspiration. It is similar to earlier commentary songs (the subject matter of which Dylan lifted from newspapers) in that his ability to rhyme helps him turn a reporter`s perspective into a lyric, but as far as getting deeper into making the listener feel anything – strike out. In this way it is similar to another song on DESIRE (actually the flip side literally and figuratively to Hurricane) – Joey. Again, gets the storyline down pat but outside of that, lyrically, it is flat. Dylan really has to work to breathe life into them.

  • Gary

    What are your thoughts on ISIS?

  • Evan Schlansky

    I love me some Isis.

  • Kevin

    Desire is sweet and so is “Abandoned Love” i got a feeling we may see that later, but who knows so many songs that could be in the next 20.

    I like the writing don’t know why the above comments downplay it, its simple because I think he was actually trying to make an argument rather than fill it up with vague imagery.

    This series is amazing I can’t wait for tomorrow. Thanks.

  • Kevin

    oh and Isis is badass.

  • http://www.myspace.com/thesaturnsociety RobbyParsons

    Ballad In Plain D has a curse word … “Leave her alone, Goddamn you get out.”

  • Willy Eye

    Just for the record, “One More Cup of Coffee” isn’t the only song that Dylan wrote without Levy for the DESIRE album. I’m pretty certain that “Sara” has a Dylan-only songwriting credit.

  • James Barnhart

    Hurricane is not unique when it comes to cursing. In the single, George Jackson, Dylan sings, “He wouldn’t take shit from no one, he wouldn’t bow down or kneel.”

  • Evan Schlansky

    Thank you Willy Eye. You’re right. I fixed that sentence. (Getting that wrong makes me want to write a song with a curse in it.)

  • gbrown057

    I love this series.

    That said, I too find Hurricane lyrically clumsy and hectoring, but musically brilliant.

    Incidentally, what was the situation re Carter’s “guilt”?

  • shastadaisy

    In the Mojo book *Dylan…*, this is listed #25 among his 100 best songs. In a short song critique, the phrase “….,pure poetic passion…” is used.

  • Kevin Cramsey

    Are you crazy? One of his best?

    This song is a travesty. There are so many inaccuracies. I refer you to some stories on the web that go line by line through the falsehoods Dylan spouts on this song. Incredibly irresponsible of him. For the record, Dylan took great liberties with the Hattie Carroll tale as well, but that’s nowhere near as aggregious as his taking up the cause of a beast of a man who killed in a racist rage. Awful. Terrible. Dylan at his worst!

  • shastadaisy

    I guess you need to take it up with the courts that set aside the conviction.

  • kevin cramsey

    Dear shastadaisy, this is not about taking it up with the court. As we all know, guilty people are set free everyday due to legal technicalities, lost evidence when retrial comes around, etc etc. I’m not suggesting this is Dylan’s fault. Nonetheless, no amount of artistic license can excuse what Dylan does with this song. The fact he has not really taken up any ’cause’ since this time leads me to believe he has seen the pitfalls of his ways where this song is concerned. Then again, he put it on “Greatest Hits 3″ so I guess he isn’t too concerned about this after all. Of course, with him, no one never knows what’s really going on upstairs in that brilliant mind.

  • Evan Schlansky

    Here’s the website referred to earlier. I’d never known about it until today.

    http://www.graphicwitness.com/carter/song.html

  • mike

    i think hurricane is a quick sketch of the troubles that haunted carter. as far a accuracy goes dylan does take liberties in the sake of rhyming lyrics ,which he has taken throughout he career. poetic license is just what writers have used since shakespere was in the alley.. another fine song that takes these freedoms is joey on the same album. dylan only skims the surface of this man’s life; see the gang that couldn’t shoot straight by jimmy breslin. new yorkers and the tri-state areas can relate to these 2 songs because we lived where it was happening

  • Karl

    The best version of this song comes from the single all-night session that produced 5 of the 9 songs on ‘Desire’. It didn’t make the album due to corporate lawyers panicking over possible litigation. This not only gave us an inferior version, re-recorded 3 months later, but denied us Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals and the wonderful quartet sound that IS the ‘Desire’ album (Dylan-acoustic, Rivera-violin, Stoner-bass, Wyeth-drums). This can be heard on a bootleg titled ‘Songs for Patty Valentine’.

  • AndoDoug

    The sloppiest bit is when he criticizes the cops for letting a man ‘who could hardly see’ try and identify the killer,’ only to follow this with the man looking up ‘through his one dyin’ eye’ only to remark conclusively, ‘Why’d you bring him in here boys, he ain’t the guy!” Dude, you just said he couldn’t see!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001000577488 Eduardo

    Really, this is the BEST SONG EVER!
    The lyrics, the frenetic violin, Bob Dylan, Rubin Carter, Bob Dylan’s Voice, the lyrics (yeah, again ’cause is the BEST THING), the rithym, the lyrics, the lyrics, the lyrics.
    These up here made this be my favorite song. The Right story, the right lyrics, the right singer and the right rithym.

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