Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate was hot for topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was evidenced by their chart successes. And it was in part thanks to Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that rock music with a message thrived throughout the decade. Although, from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical flavors, rather than those polemical or topical for his songs—that is, until his unexpected return.
Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for contemporary all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war and a cyclone and the flooding and famine that went with it. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.
It was later that month at San Quentin during the summer of 1971 that George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities and became an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call that Dylan was responding to when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain strain of blues was born.
Jackson had made it to California from the streets of Chicago; a 70-dollar robbery landed him in prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson found trouble inside the prison walls too, and as his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed—he used the time in solitary to educate himself. He studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers while on the inside, and went on to become one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them, with a counterintelligence program, and was largely successful at it. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed in the Soledad incident, for conspiring to kill a guard, was a widely held belief; subsequently, a vocal celebrity chorus came to Jackson’s defense. But a few days before his trial for the murder was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; Jackson was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. The details of the case are still being debated by scholars, historians, and survivors, many of them with a personal attachment to the events of that day.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:
“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards”
While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, hisalbumsSelf Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. But by summer of that year, he came out swinging.
“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”
Dylan once again spoke to criminal injustice when he took on the plight of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which Carter explains his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his experience of being framed by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him in prison. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing the tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time. “Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”
“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as the pistol shots that rang out in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger, and largely unacquainted with the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. The song stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as for others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988.
During his 1975-’66 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme. “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.
Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.” And though eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated, controversy still surrounds his case.
Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens said in 2008.
If I had to pick just one, I would have to say that “Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too. From the first time I heard it in 1975, it spoke to matters that as a young person I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. Everyday, I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing, and for an entire eight minutes and some odd seconds, be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my immediate sphere. This was not my parents’ Dylan (not that they listened to him), the vast catalog of songs from the ’60s that at the time meant so much to so many yet very little to me; this was the new ’70s Dylan. His exciting return to protest, and of course rebellion, was something that I as a member of a new generation of listeners could totally get with.
Perhaps the goodwill of however many Dylan fans, young and old, diehard or just discovering him, rushing toward the Carter case and the folks who feverishly worked on it gave the cause a boost. Without a doubt, it was a song that set a direction for me—toward further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing and freedom movement, liberation, cultural celebration, and message songs; the kind that contain secret, hidden histories of ourselves and of our country; the kinds of stories that aren’t often told in school but rather handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and Jackson’s and, of course, heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.–
published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!