Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane:' The Story Behind the Song

Bob Dylan
Photo by Steve Morley / Redferns

Ask any Bob Dylan fan to name his or her top five Dylan songs, and chances are “Hurricane” (purchase/download) will hover somewhere around the top of the list. Recorded in October of 1975, and released as the opening track of the 1976 album Desire, “Hurricane” is Dylan's riveting blow-by-blow account of the plight of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted for a 1966 “race killing” during the peak of racial tensions in North America.

Dylan Meets the Hurricane

Serving a triple life sentence (along with his alleged accomplice John Artis) for three murders in a New Jersey barroom shootout in June 1966, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter had already served eight years when Bob Dylan rolled into his life. When The 16th Round, the autobiography proclaiming Carter's innocence, was published on April 30, 1974, copies were sent to numerous celebrities in hopes of drawing attention to the cause in a new campaign for his release.

Folksinger Joni Mitchell was one of the recipients of the book, and she quickly passed on the opportunity, thinking, “This is a bad person. He's fakin' it.” Dylan, who had recently written “George Jackson”—a song about the wrongful death of a Marxist Black militant—had no such thoughts. During a 1975 trip to France, Dylan read the book, and in May following his return, he visited the boxer who was incarcerated in New Jersey. The two met for hours, with Dylan taking notes and both men finding an instant rapport.

According to Carter, “We sat and talked for many, many hours, and I recognized the fact that here was a brother.” Dylan couldn't have agreed more: “I realized that the man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running down the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that.” Set to the task, Dylan began throwing ideas around for a song, but the lyrics wouldn't budge. That is until he hooked up with stage director-cum-lyricist Jacques Levy, with whom he would co-write his entire next album, ​Desire.

A Song Is Born

After eight years of seclusion in Woodstock, New York, Dylan was looking to re-stoke his creative embers, and the avenue he took was moving back to Greenwich Village, which was experiencing a revival of sorts with the next generation of talent, including the likes of nouveau Beat-rocker Patti Smith, Bette Midler, and comedian Woody Allen. Following up his 1974 comeback album, ​Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's homecoming immediately bore fruit as he set out writing and recording Desire.

With rough versions “Isis” and “One More Cup of Coffee” in-hand, Dylan found instant songwriting chemistry with Jacques Levy—known for his earlier co-writing of “Chestnut Mare” with Roger McGuinn. On a whim, Dylan suggested they try it out, and the chemistry was so right that the two lyricists spent two weeks in July holed up and hammering out an album's worth of material. But “Hurricane” was the one giving Dylan the most trouble. With his background in theater, Levy's visual approach to songwriting was the perfect lubricant.

“The first step was putting the song in a total storyteller mode,” said Levy about the song. “...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.” The song would get it's public debut on September 10th, 1975 during Dylan's performance on the PBS broadcast, The World of John Hammond.

Night of the Hurricane

At the same time all of this was going on, Dylan began unfurling an idea he'd been sitting on to launch an old-timey carnival-like road show of traveling performers. After recording the song “Hurricane” on October 24, the Rolling Thunder Revue quickly fell into place. Duly inspired, after piecing together an ensemble of all-star musicians, Dylan quickly released “Hurricane” as a single in November, using the road show as a platform for a campaign for Rubin Carter's release. The song would also be the opening track of Desire, which was released the following January.

In the double-disc The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, in one of the tightest versions ever released, in his introduction to the song, Dylan says to the audience, “We gotta get this man out of jail.” Touring across New England and Canada, with Carter's retrial as one of his main objectives, Dylan and company played a total of 31 shows in 1975, ending the tour at Madison Square Garden on December 8 with a benefit, the Night of The Hurricane. Guests included Roberta Flack (who replaced Aretha Franklin, a last-minute cancellation), and Heavyweight Champion of the world, Muhammad Ali who, in a live stage spectacle called Carter in his jail cell.

The Revue would continue the following year, beginning with the over-the-top celebrity all-star bonanza, Night of the Hurricane II, which took place on January 25 at Houston's all-new 70,000-seat Astrodome and featured headliners Stevie Wonder and Stephen Stills.

The Fate of the Hurricane

That March, at least in part due to Dylan's rousing of the ranks, Rubin Carter was awarded a retrial and released on bail. And then, on December 22, 1976, both Carter and John Artis were found guilty again and re-sentenced to life imprisonment.

Finally, in July 1985 the New Jersey Federal District Court overturned Carter's conviction, deciding they were based on racist motives, and Carter was released. Furious, the New Jersey prosecutor appealed. However, in 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the Federal Court's earlier decision, and in 1988, the final spike was slammed into the case when the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit. Out of options, the New Jersey prosecutor finally let it rest. Despite this victory, Carter was never actually found “not guilty,” and there's much speculation as to whether or not he actually did commit the crime.

And the song? Although Dylan played it every night during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, he dropped “Hurricane” from his live set after the Night of the Hurricane II benefit and hasn't performed it to this day. Out of Dylan's gargantuan repertoire, “Hurricane” is the one track that Dylan fans everywhere would give anything to hear him perform. It's every diehard Dylanite's deep-seated fantasy that someday, somehow, he or she will be in the front row when Dylan finally decides to shake the tree.